Shalom! First Thoughts of Israel

Posted: March 27, 2009    Categories: Israel

I have arrived Israel.

40 years ago, Apollo 8 took the famous photo of the Earth rising over the surface of the Moon. After that photo, many people ooohed and aaaahed about how when you look at the Earth from space, there are no borders or countries and everyone is really just part of one big human race.

I get what they are trying to say, but the reality is we do live in a world with borders and those borders can mean a great deal. Life on one side of an arbitrary line in the dirt can be totally different than life on the other. That really hit home when I started my trip on an Amtrack train and was about 100m from the Mexican border outside of El Paso, TX.

I am sitting only a few miles from where I was last night, but it seems like a world away. I can literally SEE Aqaba from where I’m sitting. It is right there. I can see the hotel I was at last night. If Aqaba and Eilat were in the same country, I could probably walk there in under an hour. Yet, that line I crossed today has changed a lot.

The border crossing was strange. I was the only person crossing during the entire time I was there. Leaving Jodan was very professional and straight forward. The crossing is a few miles out of Aqaba, but not too far. I had to pay a 5 dinar exit fee which I didn’t know about, and was glad I still had a few dinars on me.

Once the Jordanians let me go, I walked with my backpack alone down the middle of a 100m road between the checkpoints with fencing and razor wire on each side. It was the sort of scene you’d see when trading prisoners of war. (I don’t want to give the impression the border was hostile or militarized. It was actually very casual on both sides. I’ve seen US/Canadian border crossings which seemed more tense.)

Where as the Jordanians were in military uniforms, the Israelis were dressed very casually. Also, most of the security team on the Israeli side were female. The security check was very straight forward and quick. They did go through my camera and lenses, but nothing else out of the ordinary.

The passport control desk is where I expected problems. They asked why I was in the UAE, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar. I said, “I am traveling around the world”. They then preceded to ask me a ton of questions including the name of my father and his father (who passed away 40 years ago). They also asked me if I had an email address, and I used that opportunity to give them my URL and to tell them about my website and that they should check it out. I think it helped.

I assume they sent the information to some office somewhere, where they ran a check on me. I’m sure if they looked at my website, it added credibility to my story and help convince them I was not a terrorist. The total time from crossing the line to being given the OK to leave was about 90 minutes. Most of the people I asked on Twitter assumed it would take about two hours. Some guessed seven to eight hours.

Life on this side of the line is very different. Different language, system of writing, religion, ethics, morals, politics and aesthetic. I should note that Aqaba is a very nice city. I enjoyed it very much. I didn’t move from the third world to the first. It was a lateral move in terms of the development levels between the two cities. Also, Jordan is probably the most liberal Arab country I’ve visited.

While Aqaba is a resort town, Eilat is really a resort town. You look in the water and there are tons of sailboards and jetskis, hundreds of people sunning themselves on the beach, and swimsuits. Girls in swimsuits. Having mostly seen women in hijabs for the last three months, it was sort of jarring to see that (but welcome!)

Eilat is certainly more expensive than Aqaba. I poked my head in a McDonald’s in a mall across the street from where I’m staying to look at the menu. About $7 for a regular size value meal.

I should also note on this inaugural post from Israel that I am not going to write about the political problems between the Palestinians and Israelis while I’m here. I’m planning to visit some Palestinian communities in the West Bank and I may write about it more in depth once I’ve left the region and have had some time to think about it. Suffice it to say I’m not ignorant of what is happening and I am not going to ignore what is happening while I’m here, even if I’m not writing about it every day.

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