There we were, at the entrance to Israel. And there they were.
One of them was a woman: sturdy, attractive, no-nonsense with dark sunglasses and hair pulled back into an efficient ponytail. I once read that it’s mandatory for all Israeli citizens to serve in the IDF for three years (women for 2 years, or 3 if they serve in a combat position). I wondered, as I watched this female guard flip through our passports, if she got to choose her position, or if she was just issued an assignment, like a Mormon on a mission. I’d rather be a paper-pusher than on the front lines. I’m too much of a pacifist to shoot at people. Besides, I look fat in cargo pants.
So, after the female guard gave our passports a thorough inspection, she waved us on our way. I offered her cohort a quick smile as I passed through the security gate. He was a tall, fit guy wearing a polo shirt and shorts. He actually looked more like a tennis instructor than a border guard. Well, except for the machine gun.
We shuffled along to….another gate.
There were two male guards there, waiting, machine guns poised. One of them had pale blue eyes and couldn’t have been more than 5′ 4″. The other guard was tall and looked like a low-rent Daniel Craig. I wondered if the guards took their machine guns home at night. Or did they leave them at the border, in little cubbies with their names on them? David — Sarah — Schlomo.
The short guard inspected our passports. When he got to Abby’s, he chuckled and held up her photo to Low-Rent Daniel Craig. Low-Rent started laughing and the short guard pointed to Abby’s picture and said, “So cute.” I nodded. “Yeah, she’s pretty cute.” I eyed their machine guns which were at the same level as my daughter’s cute head.
We were then directed to a low, stucco building to pay an entrance tax (hopefully we’d get our goodie bag at this one) and pass through the metal detectors. There was an x-ray machine for our bags too. Israel doesn’t fuck around.
As we entered the building, I felt a blast of cold air and I started weeping. Hallelujah! Air conditioning! Thank you, Israel! And then, through my tears, I spotted a vending machine just beyond the metal detector. COKE! For those of you who don’t know about Bret’s addiction to coca-cola, he drinks several cans a day and has since he was 15 years old. And at this point in our journey, it had been a whole twenty minutes since he’d had a coke, so he was due.
I was feeling better. We were almost to Eilat, Abby’s cheeks were no longer bright red, rather a pleasant shade of peach, and Bret was about to enjoy a cold can of coke. Things were looking up for the Scott family.
I plopped the diaper bag on the x-ray machine and pulled Abby out of the stroller. Bret folded up the stroller and laid it on the conveyor belt. I watched him for a moment.
Poor guy. He was soaked with sweat.
Bret’s body temperature is naturally about 5 degrees hotter than the average person’s. So, when it’s just really hot to you or me, it’s like an inferno to Bret. He sweats a LOT and his skin turns a deep shade of pink. He takes it all in stride though. Cool as a cucumber. That’s one of the reasons I love him. He never panics. He could be caught in a hurricane while dangling from a trapeze above a pit of angry crocodiles and he would still maintain a calm, practical outlook. “Let’s just wait them out, babe,” he’d suggest matter-of-factly, tossing a handful of pumpkin seeds into his mouth (he also loves pumpkin seeds).
Sometimes, his level-headedness drives me nuts. But sometimes, I find it very soothing, and this was one of those times.
I kissed Abby’s forehead. The air-conditioning had cooled her skin. “Baby,” she said, pointing to the young girl ahead of us, passing through the metal detector with her family. “She’s a little girl,” I corrected her. I didn’t want the girl to get offended being labeled a baby by an actual baby. Abby looked at me, “Baby,” she corrected me. The little girl didn’t seem to hear. Or maybe she didn’t speak English? So, I nodded, “Yup, she’s a baby.”
We made it through the metal detectors without incident. I did wonder why they didn’t have bomb-sniffing dogs at the checkpoint. It would have been nice to see a dog. We have two labrador retrievers back in the states (some of you know them) and we miss them terribly. There are virtually no dogs in Aqaba. People here (and Jordan in general) don’t really keep dogs. Apparently, in Jordan, dogs are one step up from pigs.
After getting through the metal detectors, we paid some mysterious number of shekels ($3 shekels to the dollar, right? Something like that) for the entrance tax (alas, no goodie bag), flashed our passports to about 800 more people, one of whom asked what we were doing in Israel. “Um…to get a baby gate,” Bret said sheepishly. I smiled and bounced Abby in my arms. Why was I trying to appear innocent? I had nothing to hide. We needed baby gates and some frozen yogurt. What’s weird about that?
And finally, we were in Israel. We were standing in a desolate parking lot and it was 110 degrees but we were in Israel! We scanned the area for the bus that was supposed to take us into town. All we saw were two taxis waiting nearby.
One of the cabbies got out and walked towards us. “Eilat?” he asked in a heavy accent. Bret politely declined and informed the cabbie that we were waiting for the bus. The cabbie shook his head, “No bus. No bus.”
Bret and I looked at each other. No bus? “No bus,” the cabbie said again. Could he read our minds?
My heart sank. “How are we going to get into town?” I asked, looking down at Abby in her stroller. Her cheeks were bright red again and her forehead was dripping with sweat. She pursed her lips and said “Boo-boo.” Boo-boo is what she calls my breasts. Sometimes it means she’s hungry, but usually she just wants to inform everyone that the lopsided lumps on my chest are called Boo-boo.
The cabbie started ushering us into his car. “We don’t have the car seat, babe,” I reminded Bret. We’d left it in our car which was still parked on the Jordanian side. We assumed we’d be taking the bus into Eilat, so we left the car seat behind. Bret paused.” What do you want to do?” he asked. What could we do? Go back to Aqaba? We really needed those baby gates to help keep Abby safe in the apartment.
We also needed a baby bathtub, by the way, as our apartment is only equipped with showers. We do have two bidets though in case anyone’s interested. Is it gross that we never use them? I’m not even sure HOW to use a bidet. Bret watched an online bidet tutorial (of course he did) and apparently, you’re supposed to sit on the edge of the bidet and wash your butt et al using the little spout. You’re supposed to lather up with soap and everything. I think this sounds like a lot of trouble. Why not just hop in the shower? Also, I’m unclear if you’re supposed to wash after you go number one and number two, or just after number two? I guess it’s sort of a “to each his own” kind of thing. I just leave the bidets alone.
So, back to the cabbie.
He didn’t seem concerned that we didn’t have a car seat. He popped his trunk for our stroller and lit a cigarette.
But I was really concerned. Panicked, actually.
I stood there for a moment. What should we do? Should we forget the whole thing and just go back to Jordan? What if I sat Abby on my lap and put the seatbelt across both of us? Am I nuts? She’s never ridden in a car without being in her car seat. Bret and I even took a course in car seat safety and then spent $270 on a state-of-the-art car seat with side-impact cushioning, a five-point harness and built-in stereo system. How could we even consider letting her ride without it? Jesus Christ, how could anyone think straight in this heat?
Finally, after much waffling, we decided to risk it and have Abby ride on my lap. Don’t judge me. I still feel shitty about it. I was anxious the entire ride into Eilat, which was all of 3 minutes and topped out at 34 miles per hour. The cabbie drove carefully, not too fast or erratic like most cab drivers you encounter. Didn’t matter. I felt like a terrible mother. How could I deliberately put my child in harm’s way? She survived the experience, but what if she hadn’t?
As soon as we pulled safely into Eilat, I promised myself I’d never let her ride without a car seat again. But then I remembered we would need to take a cab back to the border on the way home. Crap.
The cabbie dropped us off in front of the baby store. Well, it was actually one of three baby stores in Eilat, but it’s the one the cabbie said was the best of the three. I thought it was interesting that this grizzled taxi driver had an opinion at all about the baby stores.
Bret asked what currency the cabbie preferred.”I have American dollars or Jordanian dinars,” Bret offered. The cabbie shrugged and said “What good are dinars to me? I take dollars.” Fair enough.
We got out of the car and Bret got the stroller out of the trunk. I kissed Abby’s head, relieved that the 3-minute drive didn’t end in disaster.
We stood on the sidewalk for a moment looking around.
I was struck by how different Eilat was from Aqaba. Women were dressed in shorts and tank tops. There were nice cafes, nail salons, cute little restaurants. The sidewalks were clean, the people seemed sophisticated even though they were dressed in beach clothes. There were no headscarves or chadors. No strange smells, no dirt parking lots filled with cigarette butts and broken glass. I didn’t see any men in long tunics and sandals. No dead goats.
I did see a dog though! He was an adorable little pitbull-dachshund mix (imagine that for a second). He ran up to us, wagging his tail. He was small and brown with a pitbull face and long, dachshund body. I think someone said his name was Coco. “Doggie!” Abby exclaimed.
At that moment, I felt a strange mixture of relief and sadness. Relief because it was so nice to be in a place that felt familiar. Everyone was speaking Hebrew (which sounds an awful lot like Arabic, by the way) but the look of the place, the style, the people. The feel. It felt like home.
I like western culture. I like being free to wear what I want and drive my own car. I like being well-educated and allowed to speak my mind. I like clean streets and nice baby stores and dogs. The sadness was because I wanted to stay.
We walked into the baby store. It was well-stocked with fancy baby furniture and children’s clothing. The sales clerk, a curvy brunette, greeted us with a smile.”Shalom,” she said. We asked her about baby gates and an infant bath tub and she produced several options.
We decided on a purple plastic tub and two wooden baby gates from a reputable brand. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a gate wide enough to accommodate the entrance to our kitchen, which is unusually wide. But at least we would be able to cordon off the hallway which led to the bathrooms and bedrooms. It’s important to contain a toddler as much as possible.
While Bret converted the cost of our purchases from shekels to US dollars (thank you, iPhone), I browsed the selection of toys. The saleswoman asked me where we were from. I told her California and she smiled, “Oh, very nice.”
I then told her we were living in Aqaba for a year though, so we would probably see her again. Her eyes got very big. “Aqaba? You live Aqaba?” I nodded, “Yes, my husband is teaching at the film school there.” She put a hand to her chest. “You’re not scared in Jordan?” she asked me. I thought this was an odd question coming from someone living in Israel. “No,” I told her. “Even at night? Walking around?” she asked. “No. I feel pretty safe in Aqaba,” I said. She gave me a sort of vague nod and I got the impression that she thought I was either crazy, or lying.
Weird. I might be a touch of crazy but I wasn’t lying. Also, it was weird how I was worried about traveling to Israel and this Israeli woman was afraid of traveling to Jordan. I thought of the movie, THE OTHERS with Nicole Kidman. No matter what we are, we’re afraid of the “other.” Danger is based on perception.
I mean certainly, there are things that are truly dangerous. Being a Navy SEAL on a secret mission in Afghanistan is probably pretty dangerous. So is driving drunk or poking a lion in the face with a stick while wearing Lady Gaga’s meat dress. But is living in Israel dangerous? According to the saleswoman at the best baby store in Eilat, no. She felt perfectly safe there. But she was afraid of traveling to Jordan. So is living in Jordan dangerous? According to me, an American expatriate who’s been there for one month, no. I feel pretty safe there.
Perceived fear versus actual danger. Shark bites, lightning strikes, plane crashes, these are all pretty rare. They do happen, but not that often. If that saleswoman from Eilat went to Aqaba and walked down the street, the odds of her getting attacked are about the same as me getting blown to bits by a suicide bomber in Eilat. I studied the display of baby bottles. People are born in Israel every day. They grow up and live there for years and nothing all that bad happens to them. The same is true in Jordan. So what, exactly, is each side telling itself about the other?
“It’s going to be about $130, babe,” Bret announced, looking up from his iPhone. “Plus tax.” Sold. We asked the saleswoman if we could come back for our stuff after we got some food. We didn’t want to lug a plastic baby tub all over town. She nodded, “Of course!”
Once outside, we decided to go to the mall as it was within walking distance of the baby shop. Plus, we were hoping to buy a parasol. The sun was brutal that day and Eilat was easily 10 degrees hotter than Aqaba. How was that even possible?
The mall was busy and bright. It looked like a mall you’d find in the States, complete with a GAP, Nine West and a food court.
There were several frozen yogurt places but I opted instead for a smoothie. I know. After all that and I didn’t even get fro yo. Well, the smoothie had frozen yogurt in it. It also had dates, kiwi, fresh apples, lychee fruit and about nine other kinds of fruits. It was the biggest smoothie I’d ever had. It was delicious but I could only drink about two thirds of it before I started burping up kiwi seeds.
We looked through every single shop and there was not a single parasol or umbrella anywhere in that mall. I did find a bag of Craisins in the pharmacy though. It was the fanciest pharmacy I’d ever seen. It had everything: Ray-Ban sunglasses, hair products you only find in nice salons in the States, and Craisins! I was stoked. I always took Craisins for granted back home and I will never take them for granted again. You simply can’t get them in Aqaba.
After my monstrous smoothie and our failed attempt to find a parasol, Bret and I grabbed some lunch in the food court. I got a slice of mushroom pizza and a salad. It was good but I swear the pizza crust was made out of matzo. Like a giant pizza cracker. It was surprisingly good. Bret opted for traditional middle eastern fare (kebobs, etc.). He gave me his hummus though. Hummus is too healthy for Mr. Bret.
After we had sufficiently stuffed ourselves, we browsed around a bit more and then decided to get our baby stuff and head home. Home. Was Aqaba home?
We made it back across the border without incident, although it took FOREVER! I was glad I had bought a can of peach Nestea in Eilat because it literally saved my life. I thought I was going to die of heatstroke while we waited nearly an hour for the Israelis from Haifa (the ones with the gold crosses and Vanilla Ice haircuts, remember?) to make it through the security post. I don’t know what the hold up was but I was nearing the end of my rope. But then I downed that iced tea in one gulp and, like a wilted plant, I sprang back to life.
At least the Israeli rappers were nice. They fawned over Abby, pinching her cheeks and cooing to her in Hebrew. And Abby was perfectly happy to engage them. She giggled and smiled and called them “Baby.” It made waiting in the heat a little less painful.
So, that was our journey. We got what we needed, enjoyed ourselves, and definitely plan to return to Eilat at some point. Perhaps when the weather cools down.
About a week after our trip, a group of terrorists shot up a civilian bus just 12 miles outside of Eilat. It was actually a bus from Tel Aviv that was on its way to Eilat. Several people were killed and many others injured. The terrorists, who were apparently from Gaza, also detonated a bomb that injured several Israeli soldiers responding to the bus shooting. When I read about this tragedy in the news, I thought of the saleswoman at the baby store. I wondered if she still felt safe.