Two American Girls Traveling the Middle East

There are many conflicting feelings about traveling to the Middle East.  Fear of being caught in a situation that could result in death is the main concern.  I had an opportunity to attend my friend’s wedding in Amman, Jordan, which influenced my decision to go on a Middle Eastern expedition.  I would like to share my experience as a woman traveling through the Middle East without a tour guide.   I want to encourage people to travel to the Middle East, even on a small budget.  Feel free to contact me to answer specific questions.

My story is based on the following places and people.

  • Israel
  • Palestine Occupied Territory
  • Hostels
  • Israel/Jodan Border Crossing
  • Jordan Taxi Mafia

Part 1

  • Israel

I had come from a wedding in Scotland and was slated for another wedding in Amman, Jordan.   I flew into Tel Aviv, Israel because it was less expensive to fly into than Amman, Jordan.  It was easy to add Israel to my “wedding whirlwind,” and would help increase my country repertoire.

The wedding in Dunbar, Scotland I had come form

The wedding in Dunbar, Scotland I had come from. I was with the bride’s brother, a good family friend.

I arrived at the Tel Aviv, Israel International Airport at 5am after sleeping only four hours on a plane from Paris. I had ambitiously signed up for a small tour to the Palestine Occupied Territory.  The tour was leaving from the Jerusalem YMCA at 8:30am.

I wanted to go to the Palestine Occupied Territory by myself, but I couldn’t figure out any other way to get “inside,” without a tour group.

I estimated 3 1/2 hours would be plenty of time to travel thirty minutes east to Jerusalem (boy was I wrong).  An Israeli lady I met at the airport, suggested I take the “rideshare.”  She said the rideshare was the fastest, most economical way to get to Jerusalem.  It would only cost 35 Shekels or $9dollars,  instead of 260 shekels for a taxi.

I sped through Israeli customs with little to no questioning.  I expected more of an interrogation, because the Israeli lady warned me that I would be examined closely.  She also suggested I NOT bring up my Palestine Occupied Territory Tour, because customs could think I was a protestor.

Israel Border Control

This is what they gave me instead of Stamping my passport.

I was not a protestor, just inquisitive.  I explained to the customs official that my plan was to spend the night in Tel Aviv.  The next day I would head south for Eilat, Israel to cross into Jordan for a wedding in Amman. She must have thought my story sounded permissible and passed me through quickly.

Unexpectedly, every sign in the airport was in Hebrew which made it impossible to locate the rideshare.  There were some English words, but “rideshare” was not one of them. Before I could come up with a course of action, I needed some coffee.

A sign in Hebrew in Israel

The Hebrew language threw me for a loop, add Arabic to the mix and I did not know which way was up!

I spotted a crowded coffee shop near the airport exit.  I was overjoyed to see that Israelis valued coffee as much as Americans.  There was no line,  just a throng of people surrounding the counter trying to get noticed.

Side Note: Americans love single file lines. They feel like an orderly queue is a fair and polite way to get what they  want. Over my years of traveling,  I have found the lack of orderly lines were not a big deal to people in other countries.  The real reasons  for not maintaining a line are quite sad.

Luckily, two polite Israeli girls allowed me in front of them so I could put in my order. I made eye contact with the barista, but realized I didn’t even know how to say hello in Hebrew.  In a split second decision I threw out, “Coffee Americana?”  Basically I was saying, I am an American and would like some coffee please, and yeah I came here with out knowing a lick of Hebrew…sorry.

A young man standing to the right of me offered the barista more instructions pertaining to my order.  I hoped he was getting me a large extra strong cup of coffee, but I was handed a cup a little larger than a shot glass.

I decided this young English speaking guy was going to be part of my “rideshare action plan.” I just had to execute the plan, which had never been a problem for me.

I thanked him for helping me with my order and asked him his name.  He introduced himself as Joel.  He was a native Israeli, had been in the English Army for ten years, where he learned English. I was interested, but in a time crunch, so I got right to the point and asked him the location of the rideshare.

He said he would show me because he was taking the rideshare also. Perfect! My plan was going well, maybe even better than I had anticipated. Joel asked where I was going and I told him the YMCA Jerusalem for a tour.

We left the airport together and went towards a mini bus which was a rideshare. An older, heavyset man stood by the vehicle smoking a cigarette, collecting bags and organizing the rides. This man only spoke Hebrew as well, fortunately Joel was able to explain that I needed to go to the YMCA Jerusalem on King David Street.

  • Palestine Occupied Territory

Forty minutes later the rideshare finally filled up. We hit the road, but barely moved with rush hour traffic and road construction. Joel and I sat next to each other and I excitedly told him that I was on my way to a tour that would take me into Palestine to see the “situation on the ground.” He looked at me and said, “Hmmm interesting, you mean you are going to east Israel?”

At that point, I knew I should have researched the Israel/Palestine clash more before I left. That was why I was going on the tour, to learn more about it.  In my defense, I had attempted to look up Palestine on Google Maps to see the exact location, but it was never outlined as “Palestine.” Google Maps referred to the area as the “West Bank Territory.” Maybe that should have been my first clue.  I knew the conflict was over land, but that was the extent of my knowledge.

My tenacious self said, “No Joel, I am going on a tour to Palestine.” I dug for my yellow folder, containing my thirty page itinerary and flipped to the Palestine tour section.   I showed him the tour summary, and where it said in writing, “You will be visiting Bethlehem, a Palestinian City in the Central West Bank.”   He glanced over the summary and said politely, “That area belongs to the Israelis, you are going to Israel.”

I began to get a better grasp of the conflict and immediately stopped trying to convince Joel that I was going to Palestine. Joel then began to passionately defend the Israelis’ view to me, which I appreciated.  He wanted me to understand that when the Israeli Army bombed areas of their country like The Gaza Strip, the army warned civilians a bomb was going to be released.

The warning gave everyone an opportunity to flee the area.  The civilians who did not leave, were Palestinians who were encouraged by their leaders to serve as “Human Shields.”  I was glad to have that “Israeli background story” before my tour.

After two hours on the rideshare, my tour was getting close to departure and I was more eager than ever to catch my Palestine Occupied Territory Tour. The way the rideshare bus was moving, I knew I could be on there for another hour or two and miss my tour. I conveyed this to Joel and he said something to the bus driver that got me dropped off next.

Three hours later, I arrived to the Jerusalem YMCA with five minutes to spare.  The tour bus took us straight to the gates of the Occupied Palestine Territory.

Palestine Occupied Territory

Guarded Gates surrounded the Palestine Occupied Territory

The idea of the tour was to show us how poorly the Palestinians were being treated in Israel by the Israelis.  We were told the gates into Palestine locked after 10pm, and the Palestinians were not allowed to enter or exit after that time.

palestine use 7jpg

Another entrance and exit gate

Palestine Tour

On the tour, the Palestinians would refer to the Israelis as “The Settlers,” which I thought was interesting. I am not a history buff, but I distinctly remember the Native American Indians calling the white men “Settlers.” Was this just a coincidence?

palestine shops

They told us the “Settlers,” threw trash at them from        above.  They said the chicken wire protected the stores from the trash.

Palestine use 6

A class of students,  I noticed some of the boys were wearing Jewish Kippots.

We also visited a long wall that separated the Israelis from the Palestinians.  It did look like the Palestinians were being treated poorly, but I still did not have enough background information to choose a side.

Map of Israel

This was the Israel/Palestine map the Green Olive Tour Company provided to us.  I found this tour interesting, and I never felt unsafe.

The conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians has destroyed many people’s lives.  I find the situation extremely sad and wish there was a resolution. I have friends on both side of the disagreement; and I hope my story does not offend anyone.

My interpretation is only the tip of the iceberg, there are many more layers to the Palestine/Israel tragedy. I want to share with you what I experienced while I was in the country.   I never felt in danger while visiting The Palestine Occupied Territory or Israel.

palestine 4

During the Palestine Occupied Territory Tour, I made friends with a Canadian college student named Jesse.  He was obtaining his masters in History, and was on a break from school.  He was visiting his friend Josh who was attending med school in Tel Aviv, Israel. Jesse and I both found the tour fascinating and had a great deal to talk about, as we were both “adventurers.”

I explained to Jesse that in the evening I was staying in a woman’s dorm room hostel in Tel Aviv. The next day I was going to attempt to purchase a bus ticket to Eilat. The same day, I would cross into Jordan to meet my American friend Andrea in Aqaba, and eventually go to Amman for a wedding.

He responded that tomorrow he and his friend Josh were going to Eilat as well.  They were renting a car to drive to Eilat to snorkel in the Red Sea.  They would cross into Jordan the next day to visit Petra.  He offered me a ride to Eilat.

In my mind it sounded a little risky to hitch a ride with two guys that I didn’t know well. My experience in the insurance industry, has helped me develop a keen instinct about people, and he met my standards for honesty and trustworthiness.  I could tell he respected the fact that I was a married woman and had even mentioned his girlfriend several times.

Immediately I agreed to travel to Eilat with he and Josh the next day. I would then avoid riding the public bus for six hours, which would actually be several steps below the exhausting ride share experience.  I had all night to think about it at the hostel, and could always back out if I had second thoughts.

  • Hostels

Just by chance, the tour van dropped me off one block away from the Tel Aviv Beach hostel where I was staying.   Through out my entire trip I had mentally prepared myself to sleep in a five woman dorm room.

It was only for one night and the hostel location was ideal.  For this part of Tel Aviv, $30 a night could not be beat. The beach was across the street and the scene reminded me of my college spring break in South Padre Island.

J7

I planned to meet Josh and Jesse for dinner later but wanted to settle into my hostel for a few hours.

12049295_10102574401365991_9023109259745256884_n

The first roommate I encountered was Linda, who did not seem pleased to see me in the small room. She ignored me while she put on her makeup and combed her hair.  What a friendly bunk mate I am going to have I thought to myself, but forced myself to be pleasant to her.

After introducing myself, she explained to me that she had been living in the hostel for two months and was volunteering at the rooftop bar above the hostel for free room and board.  I had empathy for that fact that she had to share one room with four constant strangers. I could barely handle that situation for one night. Linda obviously did not want to return to Slovakia where she had grown up.

Unlike Linda, I missed my life in Kansas City.  Although I was having a once in a lifetime adventure, I was ready to get back to my husband and my insurance business.  I had already been gone for nine days, and had seven more to go.

The second roommate did not speak English but luckily the 3rd and 4th roommates did. Mary (from Paris) and Ness (from Albania) were open and friendly, as soon as I introduced myself.  I was thankful for my new friends Mary and Ness because I was feeling a little apprehensive about crossing into Jordan the next day.   I still did not know exactly where the border crossing was located.

I invited Mary and Ness to the rooftop bar to catch the sunset.  Linda was there “working,” but she was “manning” the guys more than she was the bar. I was really thirsty for a beer, but Linda seemed to be busy on the lap of one of the guests. I didn’t know if I should dislodge her.  Eventually her eyes shifted my way and I flagged her down for a beer.  I made sure to tip her so she would continue to wait on us.

12037972_10102574401525671_6268258626598227175_n

The roof top bar at the Tel Aviv Beach Hostel

Mary, Ness, and I relaxed on the roof top, and enjoyed a few beers as the sun dropped below the ocean. A friendly guy named Jared introduced himself to me and explained he was there for his “Birthright.” He explained that the Jewish Community offered a free trip to young Jewish adults to travel to Israel for ten days. The community hoped the trip would entice them to come back to Israel one day, in order to build a life there and help shape a stronger Jewish community.

Jared was working in the fraud department at Bank of the West in San Francisco, the same bank I had worked at right out of college.  I quizzed him on money laundering, a subject I had always been intrigued with.    He was excited because that night he was going to the hottest club in town owned by one of the Jewish mentors.

After a few beers at the hostel, I left to meet Jesse and Josh (my future hitch hikees) for dinner in the Jaffa area.  While walking along the beach I watched joggers with perfect figures dressed in skin tight, bright colored work out outfits.  It felt like I was walking along Santa Monica Blvd not in the Middle East. Young women strolled in high strappy gladiator sandals, sheer belly buster tops, and short jean shorts.  I loved the look!

J9

An hour later I finally arrived to the Jaffa area.  Josh (the soon to be doctor)  informed me that I had walked by “Heroin park,” to get to Jaffa.  He assured me it was safe, because people on heroin were not dangerous because most were passed out.

Jaffa was a hip part of town with bountiful bars and restaurants. My dinner (chicken fried steak and mash potatoes) was delicious, the beer was flowing and the tap water refreshing.  At that point, I took it for granted. The three of us had a fun filled dinner with lots of laughing and drinking.

Spending the evening with Josh and Jesse made me feel comfortable enough to solidify my ride with them. We confirmed our departure time and they walked me half way home to get me past Heroin park.  Jesse insisted on this.

As promised, the next day they picked me up from my hostel around 11am to leave for Eilat.  Eilat is a popular beach town, and is located towards the south of Israel. It was also near one of the Jordan border crossings.

hitchiking jesse and josh

Jesse and Josh packed us a delicious vegetarian lunch.

The Three Israel/Jordan Border Crossing Options

Wrap around purse and tennis shoes

  1. Crossing near Eilat seemed to be the easiest border to venture to Jordan, and it provided a free visa.
  2. I read that it would not be as time consuming as crossing near Jerusalem. This was the Palestinian crossing and did require a visa, which you could not obtain at the border.
  3. A third choice if you were to choose to travel to Jordan from Israel, was a border crossing further north in Israel closer to Syria.  That border would have taken me out of my way since I wanted to go south to Petra.

My information came from reading forums on Trip Advisor and blogs.  I could not find what I was looking for on an official government site.   I was thankful for the limited information I found on Trip.

 

A Trip Advisor sign, I used Trip Advisor all the time

I used a combination of personal blogs and Trip Advisor to help prepare for my Middle Eastern expedition.

 

We drove by a Palm Tree Farm while driving to the Israel/Palestine Border

A Palm Tree farm I passed along the Israel highway

  • Israeli/Jordan Border Crossing

We followed the highway signs for the border crossing.  It was difficult to figure out that part of my trip, because the border crossing was not marked on google maps. I had to piece together how far the crossing was from Eilat, based on forums I had read.

Hitchiking in Israel, passing a sign in Hebrew

I estimated the border was fifteen miles north of Eilat and one third of a mile off the highway, which ended up being spot on.  The guys were glad to visit the border because they wanted to check out the fees for when they crossed over to go to Petra the next day.  To cross into Jordan it was 100 Israeli Shekels ($25USD) or you could pay in Jordanian Dinar.

I offered the guys money for riding in their rental car, but they would not accept it. I decided to hide some money in their car where they could find it.  I felt bad not contributing since they were the college students and I was the established insurance agent.

J2

At the border crossing I wasn’t sure which line to get into because the signs were in Arabic and Hebrew. I followed a nice couple who kept smiling at me.  Ten Arabic men in front of me seemed to have difficulties getting through border control.

My passport did get an exit stamp when leaving Israel

Exit Stamp in Passport

Side Note: For those of you wondering, the Israeli/Jordan border control did stamp my passport with an “exit stamp.”    I was planning on asking them not to stamp my passport, but it completely slipped my mind.  As soon as the border lady pressed her stamp down on my passport, it jogged my memory, but it was too late.  Upon arrival at the airport, they did not stamp my passport.  This is a normal practice in Israel airports, I didn’t have to ask anyone or pay someone under the table for this.

Sophisticated travelers do not want evidence of being in Israel.  The reason for this is other Arabic countries most likely will not let you into their country if they see an Israeli stamp in your passport. You can always get a new passport and say you lost your old one, but that would cost you $150.   Some of the countries involved are:

  • Syria
  • Lebanon
  • And I have heard United Arab Emirates as well (I would love if someone could confirm for me, Dubai is on my bucket list).

Some people refuse to travel to Israel all together because they don’t want to take the “passport stamp risk.”  I think of this as a boycott against Israel because these other countries are pro Palestine.  My friend Andrea decided to skip Israel to avoid the stamp. She went to Beirut, Lebanon while I was in Israel, and we met in Aqaba, Jordan.  Luckily,  Jordan does not have an issue with Israel stamps and they need the tourist money!

I passed right by the visa office and noticed no one stopped me to attain a visa, from the looks of it, I could have passed right by. I would have gone with out one, but I didn’t want any problems leaving Jordan, so I decided I would approach the guards.

  1. Taxi Mafia

I said, “Hello, do I need a visa?” The men looked surprised, and said,”Oh yes, yes.” No one spoke English so it took a long time for them to find someone to help me. Let’s just say the system was not a well oiled machine.  I obtained my free visa and crossed the border on foot.  Waiting for me on the other side was the Taxi Mafia!  To be continued…stay tuned for part 2

Crossing on foot into Jordan through the southern border crossing

The Joran Border Crossing

The map I created to illustrate my travel journey.

Travel Map

 

 

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