Galavanters on a bus?! (Part 1)

The Treasury at Petra

We aren’t bus travelers. Let’s face it. Our previous tourist-bus experience was limited to cheerfully buzzy hop-on/hop-off London sightseeing mostly as a convenient way to get a ride to the next pub and simultaneous fresh air. Oh yeah, and we also had to get on a bus to make it all the way to Grenada from Madrid. Plus a Sound of Music tour that Jeff can’t really remember because he had some hacking, wheezing, deathlike ague that the other tourists probably thought was fantastic!

However, suppose you decide to visit Israel. Sure, OK, you can rent a car to get from town to town, even in the Israeli-controlled West Bank. We did that – drove from Tel Aviv to Haifa to Galilee to Jerusalem, and then to the Dead Sea and back to Tel Aviv – more on those places elsewhere.

But after weighing our options for visiting Palestinian-controlled West Bank, we decided to take a day-long bus tour to Bethlehem and Jericho. We’re glad we did, but nowhere near as glad as we were that we decided to take a guided tour, on a bus, across the border into Jordan for a 36-hour spin through Jurash and Petra.

Israel has a peaceful border with exactly one other country: Jordan. The crossing from Israel to Jordan required a sum of money paid in cash on the spot, paperwork filled out, surrendering our passports temporarily to a stranger who kept saying “Don’t worry!” to no good effect and, most importantly, a savvy tour operator and translator who had done the whole thing before and told us, more or less, what to expect. The process ate up about an hour, including a vaguely boring/terrifying wait in the customs office.

That was just getting out of Israel and into Jordan.

Jordan was terrific, and we’ll have more details on that shortly. Bottom line, if you are going to Israel and have a couple of days to spare, do it.

But be ready for the crossing back into Israel. It’s an experience.

Any border crossing involves convincing the destination country that you belong there for some reason. When we fly to London, we show ’em a passport and tell ’em we’re on vacation (that is, we’ll spend money). They’re happy! When we fly back home to San Francisco, we prove we live there, and that we haven’t done anything horrendously illegal while abroad (like acquire tulip bulbs). These customs regimes figure you probably belong in the place you’re heading.

Israel, though, doesn’t share that particular prejudice. For their security, they baseline you as suspicious, and work from there. It starts at the airport where, even coming from a US city with a US passport, they don’t sort you into a “trusted” line. All the lines might as well be marked “untrusted” and you should probably not have anywhere else to be for the next hour or so.

But on a bus from Jordan, across a “friendly” land border! If you meant harm to Israel in some way, that’s probably how you’d try to get in. So Israel treats all border crossers the same. You are examined on the bus itself, on the Jordanian side (unarmed soldiers comparing your face to your passport picture, nonsense on your part expressly discouraged). You cannot ride across the border in your bus, because the vehicle and everything on it and in it has to be cleared of anything remotely objectionable, especially bombs and bomb-making stuff. With everything else proceeding perfectly smoothly, that is a one-and-a-half to two-hour delay on the Israeli side.

Meanwhile, you get to try and convince other Israel border guards and soldiers you belong in their country, coming from an Arabic country as you are. Nicole and I had three interviews from three different border agents. None of these “did you keep your bags in your possession?” softballs. “Who did you meet?” “Do you know anyone not just in Jordan, but any Arab country?” “Did you observe any suspicious activity?” and so on. Nicole and I got through it fairly quickly. One friend we made on the tour was not so lucky – he had a recent Lebanese passport stamp and was detained and privately questioned for an hour.

Any delay caused by any single passenger meant a delay for the the whole group. We were a unit. I bring this up because of Idiotic Loudmouth.