By the end of our first week in Aqaba, Bret and I decided it was time to take a trip to Eilat. Eilat is an Israeli resort town just across the Red Sea from Aqaba. The Red Sea is not that wide, so we can see Eilat quite clearly from the beach just outside our apartment. We can also see Egypt. Back in Pasadena, we were lucky to have a hazy view of downtown from the freeway.
Our reasons for going to Eilat were twofold: 1) We needed certain baby-proofing supplies that the shops in Aqaba don’t sell (like, baby gates) and 2) I hungered for a taste of western culture after a week of Arab overload. The chadors, the call to prayer, the dead goats. It was a lot to digest in only a week; to say nothing of all that Snack Maamoul. Eilat has an Imax, a Gap and lots of frozen yogurt places. Also, I was craving a bagel.
So, after much deliberation, we decided to cross the border.
It’s important that I explain the reason for our deliberation. As you probably know, there’s basically a war going on between Israel and almost every other nation in the region. It’s a war that spans thousands of years and, from what I understand, involves territory. I’m no expert on the topic but essentially many Arab countries don’t recognize Israel as a nation. So, if we try to enter say, Syria, with an Israeli stamp in our passports, Syria may turn us away and literally not let us enter.
The only Arab nation with a peace treaty with Israel is Jordan.
Frankly, I have no desire to visit most of the countries in this region. At least, not right now. Iran is no place for a foul-mouthed female like me. Iraq is out of the question. Syria is knee-deep in civil strife, so I’ll pass. And Libya is a total mess. Also, Saudi Arabia doesn’t recognize me as a human being, so I don’t want to go there. Yemen and Oman? Nope and nope. The only Arab nations I’d consider at this point are Egypt, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Dubai. I’m really hip on touring Jordan though. There are some amazing places to see here: Petra, Wadi Rum (vast desert), Jerash, the forest in Ajloun and of course the capital city of Amman.
We were advised by several well-traveled friends that if we wish to tour other Arab nations (i.e. Lebanon, Kuwait), we should acquire a second passport for travel to Israel. The only place to get that second passport is the U.S. embassy in Amman. Back in the States, we couldn’t get a second passport. I tried and failed. Earlier this summer, after our passports had arrived in the mail, I went to the post office to inquire about applying for a second passport. The pasty woman behind the counter shouted, “Are you a diplomat?! You can only get a second passport if you’re a diplomat! So, are you a DIPLOMAT?!” Everyone in the post office (it was crowded that day) stopped and stared at me. I felt my face turn red. I cleared my throat, and muttered, “Um…I, uh…no. I’m not a diplomat.” She pursed her thin lips and, helmet hair lacquered firmly in place, she shook her head. “You can only have one passport at a time, ma’am. Unless you’re a diplomat.” Then she shooed me away with a wave of her fake nails, which were a depressing shade of coral. I turned and walked out of the post office, humiliated by a Gary Larson cartoon.
But back to the deliberation. Bret and I discussed our options. We could just wait to go to Israel until we get the second passports. Well…. but we really need that baby gate and some frozen yogurt. Maybe if we drive up to Amman, the malls there would have the baby gate we’re looking for? But would they have frozen yogurt? Plus, Amman to Aqaba and back is kind of a long drive (3 1/2 hours each way) for the baby (me) and could get costly if we tire and decide to stay overnight. But if we go to Amman we could get those extra passports at the embassy. Hmmm….. but what about the frozen yogurt? We literally debated this for hours.
Finally, we decided it was best to just cross the border and worry about the second passport issue later. So, off we went to Israel in search of baby gates.
Marty (remember him?) had already informed us that we wouldn’t be able to drive our rental car across the border into Eilat because it wouldn’t be covered by insurance. Bret did some digging online and found out that we could park our car at the border and then walk across. And then, there would be a bus that would take us into the city center. Perfect!
We packed up the diaper bag and umbrella stroller and set out for Israel. In the back of my mind lurked the frightening thought that we would be victims of a terrorist attack while in Eilat. I imagined a bomb going off on the bus or in the mall. Body parts and frozen yogurt toppings flying everywhere. I shoved that image into the far corner of my mind and begged my imagination to stop with the worst case scenarios. We’re going to be okay, I told myself. We’re traveling with a baby, so everything was going to be peachy.
An hour later, after several wrong turns and a discussion about whether or not to forget it and just build a baby gate out of palm fronds, we finally found the border. The border is this desolate area with watchtowers and guards carrying automatic rifles. It’s also flanked by two oases of lush palm trees, which I found kind of odd. All this stark desert and then…a beautifully manicured forest of trees.
We parked in the lot and got out of the car. It was HOT. Oh my god, was it hot. It was so hot, my insides were sweating and while I was sure I was breathing, I couldn’t tell if I was actually getting any oxygen. As Bret buckled Abby into her stroller, I looked up at the striking Jordanian flag dancing in the wind. Black, red and green. And just beyond a series of metal gates, I could see the Israeli flag. It didn’t seem to be flapping, although given the wind that day, it must have been.
I stared at that blue Star of David for a moment. I associate that symbol with pride and solidarity. It dawned on me, as I prepared to cross into Israel for the first time, that for many people (especially in this part of the world), that symbol represents the enemy.
As we crossed the parking lot, I spotted a donkey beside a large dumpster. He was nosing through stray bits of garbage on the ground. He glanced up at us and then went back to his trash heap. “Look, babe!” I said, in an excited stage whisper,” A donkey!” “Don’t point,” Bret reminded me gently. I lowered my arm and glanced around. No one saw me. That donkey was something else though. If I hadn’t been so concerned with keeping my cool, I would have snapped some pictures. I’ve never seen a donkey eating trash at a Middle Eastern border crossing before, OKAY?
We arrived at the first gate. A lone Jordanian guard wearing army fatigues and a machine gun asked to see our passports. Bret produced them from his pocket and after careful inspection, the guard waved us on to the next gate. By the way, we had to pay 18 JD in exit tax. That’s right. 18 JD (or $25) just to leave the country! We didn’t even get a goodie bag. What a racket.
At the next gate, a pair of Jordanian guards, also wearing fatigues and machine guns, sized us up and checked to make sure we had paid that exit tax. One of the guards waved his hand at us, “Passport.” He had a thick, black mustache that looked like a caterpillar sleeping on his upper lip. Bret, ever-prepared, promptly handed over our passports. A side note: Abby’s passport is ridiculously cute. Have you ever seen a baby passport? It looks like an adult passport until you get to the photo. In Abby’s picture, she’s wearing a blue dress from Tea Collection and a huge grin. Her hazel eyes sparkle and she has the longest lashes you’ve ever seen. I don’t know how any border guard could refuse her entry, even if she had a Star of David tattooed on her bicep.
So, Mr. Caterpillar Lip inspected our passports while the other guard, who looked kind of like Squiggy from Laverne and Shirley, made cutesy noises at Abby. Watching a camouflaged Squiggy with an automatic weapon engage in baby talk is fucking surreal. That one deserved the F word, Mom.
Mr. Caterpillar Lip then asked where we were from. “Los Angeles,” I smiled, adjusting my shades. He ignored me and looked at Bret. “California. Los Angeles,” Bret said, wiping the sweat from his brow. Mr. Caterpillar Lip nodded and continued inspecting our passports. “It’s hot today, huh?” I asked, trying to make conversation. My feet were melting so I was hoping to speed things along. Mr. Caterpillar Lip still wouldn’t look at me.
I glanced at Squiggy, who was now pinching Abby’s cheeks. I didn’t really want him touching her but I was a little intimidated by the machine gun. I also wondered if maybe he and Mr. Caterpillar Lip literally couldn’t see me. Women are sometimes invisible here. Mr. Caterpillar Lip, still clutching our passports looked at Bret, and said, “I am Bedouin.” “You’re a Bedouin?” Bret asked, sounding genuinely impressed. I can tell when he’s full of shit, and he really was interested that this guy was a Bedouin. The Bedouin are a nomadic tribe of Arabic desert-dwellers who used to raise camels but now raise either sheep or no animals at all. Some keep a camel or two for the tourists who want a picture of themselves riding a camel.
Finally, Mr. Bedouin Caterpillar Lip gave us our passports back and waved us on our way. Squiggy looked genuinely sad to see Abby go. We were instructed to walk across what is known as No Man’s Land, which is this eerie stretch of lawless asphalt where you’re not in Jordan but not in Israel either. One false move and the guard at either watchtower could (and would) shoot you.
It was really really hot out there and our flimsy umbrella stroller had no sunshade. I felt bad for Abby, whose hair was matted with sweat and her cheeks were getting redder by the second. I gave her some cold water and moved as quickly, and inconspicuously, as I could across No Man’s Land.
I could see the Star of David up ahead, welcoming us to Israel….