Posts Tagged ‘nuweiba’

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Family Trip: 4 Countries in 10 Days

June 23, 2010

The trip started with me going to Jerusalem to pick up my parents and sister, Teri, by the Damascus gate after they flew into Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv. I was sooo excited to see them! We went straight to Ramallah because they had a lot of bags. I showed them my apartment then we went to Pronto -an italian restuarant in Ramallah- and they met some of my friends.

The next day I had my appointment at the Ministry of Interior -also known as hell on earth-. I had a letter from PMRS Jerusalem counterpart, MRS, saying I was a research volunteer there and they should give me a work/volunteer visa for 6 mos. The lady I got was a total bitch, typical Israeli, and yelled at my family for standing to close to us as I was explaining everything. Ughh…Anyways, I was missing a crucial document that I didnt know I needed so I escaped from her and made a new appointment, which is a de facto visa extension…so I have a new appointment on the 6th of July–which will hopefully help me get back in the country when my sister and I cross Taba border on the 2oth.

Then we had lunch in West Jerusalem and headed back to have dinner with Jaber and his family in Bilin. Jabers mom made a huge pot of stuffed grapeleaves, kussa -stuffed squash or something similar, chicken, and soup. We were all too full to move by the end of the dinner but it was amaaaazing food. My family loved Jabers family and we all had a great evening as Israeli apache helicopters flew by doing some sort of military practice in the area, hahaha.

The next day we did the Old City in Jerusalem. We started at the Austrian Hospice, a really nice old mansion where pilgrims can stay and tourists are allowed to go up on the roof for a great view of the Old City. Then we walked around and saw Al Aqsa/Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchar. Afterwards we went to Gethesemene and the Mt of Olives before going home to Ramallah.

In the morning, we drove to Jericho and saw the Monastery there, then tried to go to Bethlehem, but the soldiers at the notorious -container- checkpoint wouldnt let us through -because of our yellow plated car-. Meanwhile, yellow plated cars are driving in and out of this checkpoint. So I argued with the soldiers for a while but in the end they wouldnt let us through, of course without giving any kind of logical explanation.

So I had to drive all the way back through Izarriya and Abu Dees basically to Ramallah to go through Jerusalem. Of course, the traffic in Jerusalem was terrible and we ended up driving in circles for a while trying to figure out how to get to Bethlehem. I tried to drive through the Silwan neighborhood -one of the Palestinian neighborhoods facing evictions- and after a while we stopped to ask someone who looked like Jesus ironically, where Bethlehem was, and he showed us the -way-…hahaha.

So finally we were on the road to Bethlehem, went through that checkpoint for the first time–realllllly really strict checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem where you have to get out of the car and do the spin move, open the trunk, etc…so that was interesting. Went to the Church of the Nativity there then did some souvenier shopping and had some icecream.

I was planning to take my family to see Hebron and the crazy settlers but because of the soldiers at the container checkpoint we didnt have enough time to get to Hebron. We went back to Ramallah and some friends of mine, Wajdi, Frida, and roommates made Mansaf for me and my family. So we had a nice big meal, some wine and good conversation before going to bed.

The next day we started our Northern Israel roadtrip. We took Frida with us and drove out the Nilin checkpoint and up to Megiddo -Armageddon-. Saw the ruins and had a lovely time there, haha. Then we drove on to Lake Tiberious and had lunch on the sea. Drove past the Mt of Beautitudes, then up to the Lebanese border, then over to the Golan.

We stopped at Lake Ram, this really beautiful lake surrounded by mountains. Then went to Majdal Shams– a druze village in the Golan. We stopped there and walked around and did some shopping and had coffee. Saw the -Shouting Hill- where Syrian druze living on the Israeli side can shout to their families on the Syrian side since they cant ever meet in person. So terrible…

We drove on the dark and curvy Golan roads surrounded by signs saying -Danger Landmines- back to Tiberius. It was such a dark road…but luckily an ambulance turned in front of me and I followed him all the way back to lighted streets. My parents said it was another -angel type character- like the Jesus guy from Silwan. Haha…we had all been in the car for too long by that point!

We made it back to Nazareth in time for bed. Got up in the morning and did some sightseeing, saw the Church of the Annunciation and the Old Market. Then we drove up to Akko and had lunch on the sea. We went swimming for a while, watched the Arab guys jump off the high crusader walls into the sea.

Then we drove to Haifa and saw the Bahai gardens and the amazing almost 36o view of the ocean from the top. Next we drove back to Tel Aviv and had coffee and lunch on the ocean front.

We drove back through the Nilin checkpoint and stopped by the wall in Bilin where the demos take place so my parents could see where it happens since we got to Bilin after dark the last time we were there. While we were looking around we noticed that lots of the olive tree fields were black from being set on fire by the teargas canisters earlier that day during the demo.

We saw on olive tree on fire and my dad and sister tried to go put it out but it was hours too late and we decided to go before people thought we were settlers setting more trees on fire, hahaha. So we drove out of the village and got stuck in a huge traffic jam where a wedding was taking place and a car had stalled on the one lane road. It took like 3o minutes to get through–we were planning to visit Al Amari refugee camp in Ramallah and see some of my friends there but by the time we got back it was too late.

The next day was Saturday, and I freaked out because I planned the trip so intricately that everything had to go according to schedule or else the whole thing would be messed up. I forgot about Shabbat!!!! So the rental car agencies in Jerusalem were closed–and the car I planned to get to drive to Eilat that day so we could get across the border that night into Jordan was unavailable. And of course, no busses were running.

So after a while I figured we could take an evening bus to Eilat, stay there for the night and go across to Aqaba early in the morning instead. So we took the 5 hr bus to Eilat, which was surprisingly pleasant since it was still technically shabbat when we left at 5 it was half empty and very quiet. We saw the MacDonalds in the middle of the Negev desert and took pictures : P

Found a hotel in Eilat and went to sleep. The next morning we crossed the border to Aqaba–the soldier was about to stamp my passport but then something came up on her computer and she read for like 5 minutes with a serious expression on her face. She asked me some questions about what I was doing in -Israel- and I went with the story about MRS in Jerusalem I told the Ministry of Interior and showed her my application for a visa and everything and she stamped my exit visa. Im not sure how its gonna go when I try to get back in…but I expect theyll at least give me a transit visa to take my sister to the airport. Inshallah.

Then we checked into our hotel and left our bags there. Then we rented a car and went to Petra. Walked around there for a few hours, met some bedouin guys who still live in caves there–street one, cave two- hahaha…then we drove to Wadi Rum. We wanted to go have a bedouin dinner in a camp there in the desert but took the wrong road that ended in the sand…so we found some bedouins who took us in a jeep to their camp 12 km in the desert and watched the sunset.

Then cooked dinner over the fire and watched the amazing stars there for a while. We got back to Aqaba that night and went to sleep….then we took a ferry across to Nuweiba. The guys on the ferry recognized me from last time when they took me up to the bridge and showed me how to drive the boat..haha. So they took me and my family to the -VIP- section and took us up to the bridge to see the captain for a few minutes.

Hahaha, it was fun. Then we got to Nuweiba and Sababa and are now relaaaaaxing finally.

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Weekly Post:

April 27, 2010

Sinai Visa Trip:

I just got back to Ramallah from my travels. I spent 2 weeks in Sinai, the original plan was to spend a few days in Nuweiba at the Bedouin camp I always stay at, Sababa, and then go to mainland Egypt to see Luxor and Aswan. That didn’t work out as planned because of the visa bureaucracy involved with entering Sinai from Israel through the Taba border. Egypt gives out 2 types of visas, one just for Sinai and one for mainland Egypt. If you come into Sinai from Taba, they automatically give you the Sinai-only visa—I think because they are trying to keep the Israeli tourists in a small area so they can better keep track of them (for their safety….).

So even though I’m not Israeli, I still came from Israel so they gave me the Sinai only visa. My friends Chris and Julian and I tried to get the Egypt visa from the Egyptian consulate in Eilat but since it was Friday the consulate was closed for the next 2 days. We didn’t want to wait in Eilat for 2 days so we decided that there must be another way to get the Egyptian visa from Sinai and we crossed the border. At the Egyptian side, we asked about the Egyptian visa and a man told us we could get it only if we paid 50 dollars to get a letter from a travel agency taking “responsibility” for us. We didn’t want to pay that bribe so we decided to try and find it in Sharm El Sheikh at the ferry to Hurghada (mainland Egypt).

Sababa and the Egyptian Visa Fiasco:

We went to Sababa camp in Nuweiba for a few days and relaxed on the Red Sea beaches, snorkeling and laying out in the sun. After a few days we took the first of 2 trips down to Sharm to try to get the visa to Egypt. Long story short—it’s impossible to get the visa on the ferry. You have to have the visa even to buy the ticket for the ferry. In order to get the visa, you have to do three things: First, pay 15 dollars to buy the Egyptian visa sticker, then pay 50 dollars bribe to get the letter from the travel agency, then go to the Sharm airport, go out of immigration like you are taking a flight, and then turn around and come back in and get the official stamp on the visa sticker.

On the first trip, we didn’t know about that whole process, so we just went straight to the ferry and tried to get on without the visa—hoping we could get the visa when we arrived in Egypt (like any normal visa process…) but they wouldn’t let us. So we drove all the way back to Nuweiba (2 ½ hour drive north) and decided to try again the next day—following the instructions we got from the officials at the ferry.

We drove back down to Sharm the next day—went to Thomas Cook travel agency to get the 15 dollar visa sticker. We asked them if they would write the letter for us so we could get the visa stamped at the airport. They told us we didn’t need it, the sticker was all we needed and that we should go to the airport to get the stamp.

So we drove to the airport (all the while the taxi meter is running….ughh) and went to Terminal 1. We went out immigration and tried to get the stamp. The guy told us we needed the letter, after arguing for a bit about what Thomas Cook told us, we asked where we could get the letter in the airport. He said there was a travel agency in the same terminal. So we went to information, and after being passed from person to person (taking about 45 minutes…) they said we had to go to Terminal 2.

We ran over to Terminal 2 and asked around about travel agencies. After the same, “Go ask this guy” process of being passed from person to person so they wouldn’t have to help us, someone finally told us there was no travel agency in Terminal 2 but there was one in Terminal 3. AHHHHH!

So off we went to Terminal 3 (meter is still running in the taxi…) and saw what looked like a Russian refugee camp. The entire terminal was packed solid with Russian tourists camped out sitting on the ground surrounded by luggage. We had to fight our way through them to find the information desk. When we finally made it to the desk, the man said there was no travel agency in Terminal 3 that could write the letter, but he knew a guy in Terminal 1 that could write it for us.

Back to Terminal 1, and we waited by the information desk for this guy to find us for about 20 minutes. Finally, a guy in a shiny suit, gelled hair, with a used-car salesmen vibe found us. He told us he could write the letter for us for 100 dollars each—all the while with a smirk on his face letting us know he knew exactly what he was doing and that he was our only chance for getting this visa so he could bribe us for as much as he wanted.

I decided to screw the Egyptian visa and the whole Luxor-Aswan trip because I was not about to pay 100 dollars to THIS guy—especially since I had spent most of my budget for the trip on the two trips down to Sharm trying to figure out how to get the stupid visa. So we returned to the taxi and asked him to drive us up to Dahab.

Dahab:

Dahab is a city on the Red Sea about mid-way between Sharm and Nuweiba. It’s more developed than Nuweiba but not as touristy as Sharm (which is mostly just huge glitzy resorts and nothing else…) so it’s a nice place to spend a week or so.

After my friend and I got to Dahab, another friend of ours from Ramallah, Lazar, arrived and we spent the next week in Dahab snorkeling and hanging out with the locals Lazar and I had met in previous trips to Sinai. Dahab was really busy because of the ash-cloud from the Iceland volcano—most of the tourists were British and the rest were European so their flights were all cancelled for a week. So we met a lot of people, relaxed on the beaches, and saw some really cool coral and fish.

Israeli Border:

Lazar was planning to stay in Sinai for a few weeks, but I had to get back up to Palestine for my work so Chris and I went back up to Nuweiba for one night before crossing the border back into Israel. The next day we went through the border. Chris got a three month visa after a thorough security check where the border guards opened all of his luggage and x-rayed everything individually. I didn’t even get that security check but at the passport control I was unlucky and got a soldier who wasn’t very accommodating.

She saw my previous Israeli visas (almost a year’s worth already) and asked what I was doing “in Israel” all this time. I played the tourist card and when she asked more questions about why I wanted to be in Israel so long without being Jewish I told her I had a Jewish boyfriend. This kind of convinced her but she ended up only giving me a one-month visa (usually signaling the end of the ability to get more visas in the future) and telling me if I needed a little longer to wait for my “flight home” I could go to the Ministry of Interior in Tel Aviv and apply for an extension. The Ministry of Interior is probably one of the scariest places in Israel, but I will have to go there in a couple of weeks and hope they take pity on me—my family is finally coming to visit me and see the region in June, so I need to be here for at least a month after my visa runs out.

Anyways, I took my passport and one month visa and took the bus ride from hell back up from Eilat. We met an American guy at the exit of the border—he asked us if we wanted to share a cab to the bus station. We got to talking and it turns out he had just come out of 3 hours of Israeli interrogation in the border (thank God—if it wasn’t him it might have been one of us….). He made the terrible mistake of mentioning “Ramallah” to the border guard. For the record, you cannot mention anything related to Palestine, Islam, or Arabic anything when you are talking to the border guards if you want to get in the country without problems. Since he mentioned Ramallah—which I’m not even sure he knew was in Palestine, he got 3 hours of interrogation before they realized he wasn’t a threat to Israel and gave him a visa.

When we got to the bus station we realized that we had missed the last bus to Jerusalem because of the surprise one hour difference between Taba and Eilat, so we had to get the bus to Tel Aviv instead. That means adding an extra 2 hours at the least onto an already excruciating journey. So we got that bus, after 5 hours arrived in Tel Aviv and looked for a sherut (minibus) to Jerusalem outside. To our surprise, the sherut driver was Arab Israeli and agreed to take us all the way to the Qalandia checkpoint instead of just central Jerusalem.

West Bank:

At Qalandia, the driver didn’t know exactly where to park so before we could stop him he drove all the way into the car lane for entering the West Bank before he stopped. He was very worried with all the soldiers carrying M-16s around. We got out quickly to grab our bags and let him get out of the wrong part of the checkpoint. As we were opening the back, the soldiers started yelling at us in Hebrew to get out of there. We told them just wait one minute and he will leave. Then the soldiers in the watch towers started screaming at the driver to go, so he started driving off in a panic with the back door open and half of our bags in his trunk. Ha.

We managed to get him to stop for 10 more seconds before he sped away from the madness and we got all of our bags. Jason, the American guy we met at the border, had agreed to come straight to Ramallah with us instead of spending a night or two in Jerusalem first. So he got a pretty crazy first impression of the occupation. We dragged and pulled at our bags to get them through the THREE turnstiles we have to walk through in Qalandia checkpoint to get into the West Bank, and caught a cab home on the “other side.”

We agreed to meet the next morning in the center to go to the protest against the wall in Bil’in—Jason would have a very interesting time in the West Bank. Haha.

Bil’in Conference and Protest:

The next morning we got to Al Manara (the central square in Ramallah) and took a service (minibus) to Bil’in. This week was the annual Bil’in conference—they had three days of workshops and tours for internationals and Israelis coming to visit Bil’in to learn about their nonviolent struggle. So there were a lot more people than usual, including important politicians and the representative from the EU for Palestine.

We marched to the wall, and for a little bit the soldiers didn’t shoot at us. Then, they pulled up the skunk water truck and most of the crowd disappeared in a few seconds. They never shot it though, so some of the braver protestors began making their way back up to the front.

After that, the soldiers started shooting a new kind of teargas canister—it is high velocity and SILENT. You can’t hear when its shot—which is what most people use to determine whether they need to run or duck or whatever. So by the time you see it its either passing right by you or hitting you. It was the craziest thing—and the soldiers were shooting them straight at head level instead of up into the air in the legal way to disperse nonviolent crowds.

I was going nowhere near the front because those crazy silent teargas canisters were appearing out of nowhere in all directions. A friend of mine that I work with, Rafke, was in the front though. A few seconds later I heard a lot of yelling for an ambulance, and the ambulance sped up to the front. I couldn’t see what was going on through the crowd surrounding whoever had been hit. Then I started seeing the blood….on people’s hands, clothes, and all over the ambulance door as it sped away towards the hospital (which is 30 minutes away, and not the hospital you want to be taken to in critical condition).

I heard what happened—a man from Jaffa (near Tel Aviv) had been hit in the forehead with one of the silent, high velocity teargas canisters. It broke open his skull—which explained the blood everywhere and the speed with which the ambulance drove away. Then I saw Rafke, looking pretty shocked, with some other of our friends walking quickly down the hill away from the front.

Turns out she was standing right next to the guy who was shot—shoulder to shoulder almost. She said she didn’t hear or see the canister; the guy was standing next to her one second then the next he had a metal teargas canister sticking out of his forehead, with blood spilling everywhere.

She said the guy was conscious when he was put in the ambulance, and actually he stood up and kind of walked into the ambulance. When a person is injured that traumatically, they don’t feel the pain at first—because they are in shock I guess. Not as traumatic for sure, but when I was shot in the leg with a high velocity teargas canister I didn’t feel any pain for an hour. But after that I couldn’t even stand up—and I still have a bruise in the shape of the canister on my leg almost a year later.

During this whole time, the sadistic Israeli soldiers were still shooting these canisters at the crowd—while the guy was being taken into the ambulance, and while the rest of us were trying to get out of range after we saw this guy who everyone thought was going to die before he reached the hospital. I was really scared because I was standing next to a short stone wall and these silent teargas canisters would just appear next to me out of nowhere. I couldn’t avoid them because I couldn’t see or hear them, and they were being shot from 2 directions—the fence at the front of the protest, and the fence that runs alongside the protest. So I grabbed my friend Barbara who was standing upright and we crouched down in these thorn bushes behind the wall to avoid being the next one shot in the head.

Then gas canisters were flying everywhere, and everyone panicked and tried to run away back to the village. But the road that leads back to the village is parallel to the side-fence (with soldiers shooting at us from behind it) so the whole time we were running back the teargas canisters were being shot at us from all directions—at head level.  As we ran along the road in panicked groups, teargas canisters were flying through the olive trees in the field beside the fence.

I took cover behind the trunk of an olive tree with a couple other people—piled on top of each other so that we were all covered by the small tree, and canisters were appearing from nowhere and flying past us. So we took off again down the road, through clouds of teargas, choking and running. I finally made it to the safe spot where a lot of the protestors were gathering to watch what was happening. Then the soldiers shot the long range teargas canisters at us and we had to move further back.

We were all really shaken up, still being teargassed every now and then, and waiting for news of the man who was shot in the head. Most people were saying that he was going to be dead before he got to the hospital. Finally we heard that he made it to the hospital and was in critical condition, but stable, and he was going to live—even if that meant a yearlong coma and brain damage like the American protestor Tristan Anderson who was shot in the head with the same kind of teargas canister in Ni’lin (another village that does weekly protests against the wall).

As we were recovering, the soldiers climbed over the fence and started charging at us and shooting teargas. Usually when they do this, they run at us for like 50 meters just to scare us further back, and then they turn around. This time, they didn’t stop so we all had to sprint away up the hill—lungs full of teargas and choking. In the end they arrested 4 people that they caught.

I decided enough is enough, and we went back to my friend Jaber’s house in the village to decompress on his roof in the sun—away from soldiers and teargas. His mom had made an amazing lunch for us—musakhan (bread covered in oil, onions, and spices) and chicken. We ate until we couldn’t eat another bite and then laid out in the sun for a while before going back to Ramallah.

Settlers in Hebron:

The next day, we found out, there was going to be a new spot for weekly protests—Hebron. They would be protesting against the illegal Israeli settlement right in the middle of their old city. One of the most violent places for interaction between Israeli settlers and Palestinians is in the middle of Hebron. The settlers have taken over the central marketplace by getting all of the upper apartments over the Arab stores below. From their apartments, the settlers throw stones, glass, sewage water, boiling water, etc…down on to the Arab market below. For this reason, the Palestinians have had to put chain link fencing over the alleyways to catch projectiles thrown at them and tourists by the settlers.

The Israeli military protects the settlers by putting checkpoints all over the old city marketplace and putting bases and lookouts on the roofs—so there is a very heavy military presence in the center of this Palestinian city. I heard from one soldier that being assigned to Hebron to protect the settlers is almost a punishment in the Israeli army—because they know how crazy and uncontrollable the settlers are. If a settler gets the urge, they can beat up any Palestinian they come across, or grab the veil off of an old Palestinian woman, and have a soldier grudgingly protect them from any repercussion.

The settlers in Hebron walk around with M-16’s slung casually over their shoulders, and when the settlers need to go anywhere, the military closes the roads they will walk on to Palestinians, and escorts them with soldiers and M-16’s—causing lots of chaos for no reason.

The Palestinians in the old city decided that it was time to start weekly, nonviolent protests there as well since the other villages like Bil’in and Ni’lin were getting so much press and the Palestinian Authority had started recommending mass nonviolent protests around the West Bank.

So we all decided to go support them in their first protest—knowing that it would probably be crazy because of the reputation of Hebron’s settlers. We got to the marketplace and couldn’t see any groups gathering, and no one seemed to know about any protests. So we walked further down the market place and found the protest. It was mostly Palestinians and Israeli activists (which is how it should be…) along with press.

Hebron Protest:

The protest was right in front of the gate that blocks Shuhada Street—a street the military closed to Palestinians because the settlers wanted it. The closures and checkpoints in the marketplace have had a devastating effect on the economy in Hebron—by forcing Arab shop owners to close their shops and scaring tourists away with violence and guns. If a settler wants an Arab shop to close, they will threaten them by marking their store up with racist graffiti and warning them not to open again (does that sound familiar? World War II and the Holocaust….?). It’s sick.

We stood there in front of the gate—which had a watch tower to the side of it, 3 soldiers standing outside the tower with guns, and one inside taking pictures and video of the protestors to make it easier to arrest them later…on the left side of the gate is a huge Yeshiva (Jewish religious school) and the settlers were standing on the roof watching us with smirks on their faces. There were military posts on all the roofs surrounding us—full of heavily armed soldiers and other soldiers taking pictures of our faces.

We chanted slogans for about an hour, attracting more Palestinian protestors from the old city, before marching down through the old city to a closed street. In a narrow alleyway, the protestors came face to face with a group of settlers and soldiers. They stood facing each other and chanting for the end of settlement in the old city for a while before about a dozen heavily armed Israeli soldiers ran at them from behind.

Everybody scattered to avoid being arrested. Then the situation calmed down a little bit and we walked back to the gate where the protest started, side by side with the soldiers who had just charged at us to disperse us. There were more of us than them, although they had M-16s and other weapons, we were surrounding them as we walked back to through the alleyways, and they kept looking over their shoulders and seemed very uncomfortable—as if we would do anything!

We got back to the gate and heard that one Israeli activist had been arrested, and he was being interrogated and “processed” behind the gate. Then we heard that a group of settlers was moving through the old city with a military escort and would be going in through the gate. So we tried to do a sit-in style protest to block the gate, but the soldiers started pushing all the protestors back before they could even sit down. Then some protestors (mostly Israeli) started pushing and shoving the soldiers.

I was watching from a distance because if an Israeli activist gets arrested, they get a slap on the wrist and are released within an hour, whereas if an international gets arrested, they get deported and banned from Israel (and therefore Palestine) forever. (Of course, the worst is still if you are Palestinian and arrested, in which case you get a severe beating and are thrown in jail for months without even being charged with anything—at the end of which they have to pay a huge fine to be released).

I saw an Israeli activist and an Israeli soldier fighting each other—then the soldier got behind him and wrapped his arm around the activist’s neck and was choking him down to the ground violently. After that, the other protestors went to stop the soldier and started a huge brawl where dozens of protestors were pushing and shoving with the soldiers. After that, the Israeli soldiers dragged off a few more people (2 Israeli and 1 Palestinian from the Hebron Popular Committee—who organized the protest) behind the gate to be arrested.

After this, the soldiers locked arms to make a wall to block the protestors from getting too close to the group of settlers that were coming through the old city to go through the gate. A few dozen teenage settlers walked casually behind the wall of soldiers with their military escort, smirking at us arrogantly. Then they went through the gate and disappeared into the Yeshiva. The soldiers went in behind them and closed the gate. We saw that the soldiers on the rooftops were preparing to shoot teargas to finish off the protest so the organizers decided that we should leave so the Palestinians who lived in the area would not get teargassed because of us.

Road Trip–Golan Heights:

After the weekend of protests, some friends of mine invited me on a trip to the north in Israel to see the Golan Heights, Galilee and the North West coastline (Haifa, Akko, and Caesarea). I decided to join them on the first night only which was camping in the Golan.

The Golan Heights was Syrian until it was occupied by the Israeli military in the 1967 war. Since then it has been an extremely contentious issue between the Syrian and Israeli governments and is used as a bargaining chip by Israel to blackmail Syria into establishing better relations with Israel. The territory is scattered with mine fields leftover from the beginning of the occupation—most of the mine fields are marked by barbed wire fences and skull and bones signs, but every now and then lost tourists and locals stumble into them accidently.

We were going to stay in official campsites only for this reason, ha. The north of Israel has a lot of national parks but according to the guidebook we had only a couple had sites for overnight camping. We chose one called Hurshat National Park, which is almost to the Lebanese border (called the “Good Fence” by Israel, hahaha). It was supposed to have the Dan River running through it so we thought it would be nice.

Armageddon (Megiddo) City:

On the way there, we drove through Megiddo (also called Armageddon…) which is an ancient city, and national park now, which is mentioned in many End Times prophesies in the Abrahamic religions. It is supposed to be the place where the final battle of Armageddon starts. So since we were driving through it, we decided to stop and see the ancient ruins of the city. After we passed the MacDonald’s (ahahahaha) we found the signs pointing to the museum and ruins.

The ancient city of Megiddo had been destroyed 25 times in its history because of its strategic location on the main travelling road between Egypt and Mesopotamia. It was established (as far as we know) in 7,000 BC and destroyed for the last time in 586 BC. It has as many archaeological layers that have been uncovered that tell its history. We parked outside the museum and ate some hummus and bread while looking out over the wide plains that stretch for miles where the End Times battle is supposed to take place. It looked very peaceful to us…

We paid the 25 shekel admission and watched a short film about the history of the site, browsed the museum, and walked around the ruins. Because the city was destroyed so many times, there were huge walls surrounding it to keep the people safe. But their water source was outside of the walls. To reach the water source without leaving the safety of the walls, they dug a long tunnel that began in the city and led to the underground spring outside the city.

They have excavated the tunnel and we walked through it. It’s really amazing, you walk down these stone steps deep underground, and then there is a very well made, uniform in height and width, tunnel that leads to a spring that still has water in it.

Nazareth:

After Megiddo, we headed on north to Nazareth. Nazareth (like the rest of the “Arab Triangle”—the area to the north of the West Bank in Israel that has a high Arab population) is a very Arab town, but mostly Christian Arabs, not Muslim. Over the hill from the center and Old City is the Jewish Israeli part of town.

Because it was Sunday, the Christian holiday, the Old City was completely closed along with most of the restaurants and shops in town. Luckily, the Church of the Annunciation (where Mary received the message that she would be the mother of Jesus) was open for tourists and we were at least able to take a look around inside before we headed north.

The church is very big and the architecture is modern—and very gray except for the bright stained glass windows. There are three levels to the church, the bottom is the ancient church that archaeologists have uncovered, the 2nd is a silent chapel, and the 3rd story is a Catholic church. Outside the church is the most interesting part for me—there is artwork sent from many different countries portraying Mary holding the baby Jesus. It’s interesting because each is done in the cultural style of the country that donated it…and they are all either mosaics or made with ceramic tiles.

Sea of Galilee:

About half an hour from Nazareth is the Sea of Galilee/Lake Tiberius and the Israeli city Tiberius. The sea is where Jesus is said to have walked on water—and archaeologists have recently discovered a boat dating from Jesus’ time almost fully preserved in the sea that you can see in a museum there. We stopped there and sat by the sea for a while, ate some gelato, and then continued on to the Golan Heights.

Hurshat National Park:

We got to the park around sunset, and the camping ground turned out to be a very unnatural park looking place with part of the Dan River diverted through the middle of it. It was nice, but definitely not an authentic camping experience.

We set up our site and made a fire and cooked hotdogs and roasted marshmallows. Most of the people in the park were Arab Israelis and Druze—Arabic music was blasting from every site and the smell of kebab was everywhere.

We walked around the campsite and came to a group of young men smoking arghile, listening to Arabic music, and dancing dabke. We joined them for a little bit and started talking to them in our broken Arabic about how we came from Ramallah—where we worked. They didn’t believe us, and started laughing. Then they said something about Israeli soldiers in the campground. We looked around, and then they were like “No. WE are Israeli soldiers.”

We looked at them confused, and asked if they were joking as Amr Diab sang “Habibi, Habibi…” in the background. Then they said they were Druze, not Arab. There are some small Druze communities in northern Israel, especially in the Golan Heights since Syria has a pretty large Druze community. The Druze, unlike the Arab Israelis, are allowed by the Israeli government to serve in the Israeli army—since they don’t identify with the Palestinian cause and are not Muslims.

We talked for a little bit about our work in Palestine, and joked about them being the soldiers who shot at us in the protests in Bil’in and Hebron. Then the guys realized we weren’t joking about being from Palestine and they started getting uncomfortable. Soon after, they shook our hands as we sat there and said “BYE! BYE!” with the intimidating look of Israeli soldiers we all knew so well.

We took the hint and left their site and returned to our own corner.

Golan Heights:

The next morning we left camp early and drove around the Golan Heights. We stopped by a beautiful lake called Lake Ram, which was next to a Druze village. It was so beautiful that we sat there for about an hour and ate lunch at a little covered seating area we came across. Soon after, some Druze men came over in traditional clothing (black billowy pants and white square shaped hats) and said welcome and told us about the fish that they catch in the lake, and the cherry and apple trees they grow on the terraces on the hills that surround the lake. It was very idyllic and the people were so friendly and welcoming.

We continued on to Nimrod’s Castle—which is a large stone fort on top of a mountain that is said to have been built by Nimrod (a character from the book of Genesis) but was actually built by the Crusaders in the 12th century.

As we drove on, we passed more mine fields that were marked by barbed wire fences.

We were trying to find the Quneitra viewpoint where you can see Syria and the disengagement zone (a few kilometers wide) that separates the occupied Golan Heights from Syria. We found a nice spot to see it and there were some Druze men selling Za’atar, honey, olives, and other things. There are some spots in the Golan Heights where Druze can call across the disengagement zone to their families on the Syrian side who have been separated since the occupation—and not allowed to physically meet each other unless they decide to give up the right to ever come back to Golan.

Druze Villages:

There are two famous Druze villages in the Golan Heights which have held onto their Syrian identity and are fiercely anti-Israel. They are called Mas’ada and Majd As-Shams. We drove through Mas’ada and continued on to Majd As-Shams which is the larger and more authentic of the two. You could see women in the traditional white, semi-transparent veil and long black dress and the men with their square shaped white hats.

We stopped to get coffee at a restaurant and when we went up to pay the man wouldn’t take any money from us. He was so friendly and welcoming, along with all the other people we came across in the town. I definitely recommend visiting these Druze villages—they are very different than the confused Druze who serve in the Israeli army. ha

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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!