Category Archives: asia

From inside the Israeli border crossing at King Hussein Bridge

At the King Hussein border crossing between Jordan and West Bank going thru Israeli border control.

I’ve been here now for three hours and counting and no telling when I’ll be done. Others have been here for longer than I have. One Dutch girl arrived at 8am this morning and just went through now, almost six hours later.

The scene here is quieter now than it was when I first arrived, I think because the border is closed to new travelers. There are ppl of all nationalities, Japanese, French, American, Jordanian.

The immigration officers here seem to treat everyone here pretty equally.  They are stern, professional and totally uncaring – this seems typical of most border officers I have seen in my life. No visual indications of discrimination although I am sure the immigration officers do racial and ethnic profiling for obvious reasons and they appear to do extensive background security checks. Remember that Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency is one of the most highly sophisticated in the world.  There are people here who make this trip on a regular basis but still get stuck for hours waiting to be cleared for entry.

They’ve taken my backpack away. Don’t know when I’ll see it again. I also went through some type of biometric scanning device which blows high-velocity puffs of air at you. Apparently to see what you have under your clothes. Something called Sentinel Express I think.

I haven’t dared to take any photos, mostly because I don’t want to risk having the camera confiscated.

There are paramilitaries here, some of them with huge looking machine guns and dressed in plainclothes and reflective sunglasses. Maybe they’re settlers?

Most of the security / immigration officers here are early twenties, maybe 17-18-19… Regular people just doing their jobs, most of them are probably Israeli Defense Forces doing their two years of mandatory military training. Most of them are women too, many of them extremely attractive, the Eastern European heritage very apparent (i.e. Descendants of WWII immigrants). It’s almost closing time now and getting quieter in here.  Everyone thats still here is waiting for their passport to come back and get cleared for entry. Some of the immigration officers are walking around with walkie talkies and clipboards, and when they’re not busy they stand around just like 19 yr olds do, laughing and talking with each other looking at their mobile phones and probably looking forward to finishing work, hanging out with their friends and going out for drinks.

Youth all over the world, we all think of similar things, across religious lines, ethnic lines, youth everywhere have so much in common (sports, romance, television, parties) it is interesting how some become fanaticised, even the well-educated, the well off, (am thinking of the recent cases of US Somali youth who have fled to join the Islamist rebel cause in their homeland).

I wonder why it happens.

Being here, stuck at the border, probably being scrutinised at this very moment (maybe they are even googling my name and are coming up with, I don’t have a problem with it. It is part of the experience, of learning to appreciate the things that people go through here, on all sides of the conflict. And I don’t want to take sides, I am here to learn and understand, to speak with the people.

Signing out for now…

From no frills hostel to 5 star resort and spa

If you’ve been following, you’ll know I’m in Jordan at the moment. My journey began yesterday in Amman (Jordan’s capital) and before it ends six days from now, I plan to travel to both Israel and Palestine (West Bank).

Coming in from Amman’s airport on the bus yesterday evening, I chatted up a friendly-looking Hashemite University student. We discussed briefly his studies in risk management and his brother who had spent time working in Abu Dhabi. I told him of my plans for a trip to Palestine (omitting any mention of Israel since I am unsure of general sentiment here towards that country). Indeed he told me that he was pleased that I referred to Bethlehem as “Palestine” and told me that he himself was Palestinian (with a Jordanian passport) having been born in Ramallah. He also told me that approximately 35% of Jordan’s population consists of Palestinians (migrants or refugees depending on how you look at it) and another 20% of Iraqis. Egyptians and Syrians are another large chunk too. I find myself wondering generally about the attitudes towards Israel in this country and I wonder if Israelis ever visit Jordan for tourism. Note to self to find out what bilateral trade amounts to Israel – Jordan.

Last night, my hotel (see Last-minute booking in Amman), the Sydney Hostel, was right in the heart of Amman in an unimpressive building with fluorescent lighting at street-level. Climbing a flight of stairs I entered a warm-looking hotel lobby with a friendly (and very gay looking) front desk attendant. A computer with Internet access stood at the ready and two other hotel staff sat in a common area watching television. One of them, the hotel manager, enthusiastically promoted their US$60 tour to the Dead Sea.

Before going to sleep, I did a bit of research on the web and quickly discovered that the Dead Sea beach the hotel was planning to take me to (Amman Tourist Beach) is actually quite dodgy (strewn garbage on the beach, dirty toilet facilities, poorly maintained and inadequate refreshment facilities). Basically – stay away!

A bit annoyed that the hotel would charge 60 bucks and pitch it as great I headed to my room thinking about alternative plans,

Two days in Petra? Tour around Amman? Head straight for Tel Aviv? Or splurge and stay at one of the famous Dead Sea Resorts and spas (i.e. Kempinski, Marriot or Movenpick)? I would sleep on it and decide in the morning.
Unfortunately their rooms left a lot to be desired – I was shown to a simple room with a minimum of furnishings. The bed linen was threadbare and on closer inspection, I found stray hairs on the sheets.

Totally disgusted and ridiculously tired (it was half past 1am at that point), I decided to sleep in the clothes I wore on the plane and use my backpack and a sweater as a pillow to avoid being dependent on the linen to keep me warm (no central heating either). At 4am, I awoke to the sound of traffic whizzing by outside my window and being totally frozen from the Amman early morning cold; I woke up the night manager who gave me a heater which was barely capable of heating up a radius of one square metre around itself.

At 10am, having slept fitfully and still very tired and already needing a break after one night of backpacking in Jordan, I decided to book myself into the 200$ a night five-star Movenpick Dead Sea Resort and Spa complete with pick up in Amman by a hotel car. :)

Generally speaking, my assumption is that, when traveling off the beaten path, cheaper is better IF you want to get to know the locals and get a real sense of a country and its culture. Reason being that you’re forced to do more on your own rather than have a hotel concierge arrange it for you. Breakfast at the shawarma place on the corner, shopping for souvenirs at markets rather than in a hotel gift shop, watching the locals shop for groceries or chat on street corners, etc etc you get the point. :)
But I have foregone that for a day or so. I’ll tell you about my day of so-called “luxury” in my next post. :)

Learning from a Jordanian taxi-driver

So I checked out of the Movenpick Dead Sea Resort and Spa this morning, deciding to head for Tel Aviv, Isra*l via the King Hussein border crossing.

My driver, Amar, another friendly Jordanian, pulls away from the hotel parking lot and we begin talking. He says he leads a simple life and is happy. He asks where I’m from. “Canada”, I say, “but I live in Abu Dhabi”. I’m sometimes shy to admit this, since I’ve lived there two and a half year and speak barely any Arabic. Amar tells me he’s been to Qatar (his cousin lives there) and has visited Kuwait and Dubai as well. He says he doesn’t like it. “Why?”, I ask, “is it because they are not “really Arab”?”. I’d heard this expression from another Jordanian I’ve met here. “No”, he says explaining that he doesn’t care whether they’re Arab or not. “They’re all so fake these countries. It’s all about money and business. I don’t want to worry about those things. I have a good wife, and three kids: Khaled – 11yrs, Youmna – 13 yrs, Massa – 4 maybe 5 years old – this is all I need.” I ask him if he’ll have another. “Maybe”, he says with a laugh, “we’ll see.”

Amar holds a pharmacist diploma but is unable to find a job in his field so he has spent the last eight years working as a driver for Hertz Rent a Car. He says its a “not bad job”. Although he finds it difficult to scrape together the funds to put his children through school he still manages to do it – he understands the value of education. It is really the most critical foundational element for development, for without it, a country’s citizens and industry inevitable become less competitive against other countries.

As we drive through the countryside, stray donkeys wander along the shoulder of the highway, flatbed trucks chug along, piled high with fruits and vegetables from the country’s farms. Tomatoes, lemons, olives, eggplant, this is how the rural communities make a living, irrigating their crops from underground aquifers, and using huge tent-like structures to cover their fields, presumably to protect from the elements and create a greenhouse effect. Jordan is one the most water-scarce countries in the world and of course, water is an integral part of the conflict in the Middle East.

Occasionally I see someone on the side of the road with a herd of sheep or goats or camels. “They’re the rich ones”, Amar explains, ” the ones with the animals can produce milk and meat”. I tell him about the Hutu and the Tutsi in Rwanda and how they were divided up generations ago on the basis of how many cows one had. Those with ten or more were a Tutsi and the rest were Hutu.

He points out gypsy camps in otherwise-empty fields and says they are from Turkey. “They beg and steal and we don’t like them”, he says. “They stay in the countryside during the winter and return to Amman in the summertime.” I see them everywhere….

This is the Jordan I really came to see… and when we finally arrive at the border crossing and discover it is closed for the rest of the day, I am not disappointed to return to Amman and enjoy the opportunity to see the city I missed the first time around…

And here I am now, in Amman’s City Centre eating another delicious beef shawarma meal and wandering the streets..

Thankfully I have a better hotel lined up for this evening… The Firas Palace Hotel at 30 dinars a night and working heating system.
Until next time….