On route to Israel, we grabbed a taxi ride to the border with an exceptionally chatty, friendly Jordanian driver who warned us upon arrival to "watch out for the gypsies" because "they hang around here all day asking for money". Noted and solid advice as they immediately descended on us as we got out of the car.
The Jordanian side of the border was so funny because it was so easy and orderly and completely chaotic at the same time. It was pretty straightforward but slow and arduous but also nice compared to SE Asia because there was no worry about bribes and scams. We all, tourists and locals alike, clustered around an immigration window with us waiting for something but not exactly sure what. They requested our passports and then directed us to the next counter to wait around for again, not sure what...but something. Then they directed us to another counter for our first clear directive: "pay your departure tax", Jordan's final financial fuck you at 20 some bucks...to leave the country. Departure taxes are always a piss off. We're getting nothing. Then we wait around again at second counter for again, not sure what until we hear "Canada" at which point we were to pass him our departure tax paid slips, were stamped out of Jordan on a separate piece of paper and told "Canada take a seat". Like good Canadians, as directed, we were about ot take a seat on the closest chairs and sit and wait for we weren't sure what. Turns out it would have been an infinite period of time because, as a friendly local directed us onwards, "take a seat" means, apparently, on the bus, leaving our passports w the immigration people. We check our bags (hello bag checking fee) and then pay our 15 CDN fee to ride the bus for the 5 minute ride from Jordan immigration to the Israeli border. Some guy comes around giving back our passports and then two minutes after leaving immigration, we stop at a Jordanian checkpoint. We'll never understand.
We arrive at the Israeli side of the border and mentally prepare ourselves for what might come. Given Israel's less than stellar reputation in the international community, security is tight as is immigration. We had read several stories of tourists getting the third degree at Israel's border with some leaving with serious restrictions on their passports about where they could and could not go. Either way, Israel is known to do due diligence to know who is coming through their borders.
Our bags are launched off the bus along with everyone else's on our bus as well as several other buses who arrived at the same time into mass confusion and chaos. A border attendant told Bridger to stay with our bags and "I go" but I had no idea where. Turns out it was to get a bag tag which I waited and waited and waited in the scrum for. After that we had to line up with everyone again for something I'm still not sure what even though we passed right through the counter. What I did know was that there was a lot of chaos and the bag checking and immigration lines, or clump rather, was melding into one another. And then, again, knowing that Israel is a bit of a political hotbed I started to get really uneasy by the chaos and seeming lack of security and pretty well buried my head into Bridger's back and breathed deeply until we were through into the more orderly, familiar inside security/immigration! Bridger breezed through security but the lady ran my little backpack through multiple times looking and relooking at the scanner. My thought was "oh man, she probably sees my giant blob of dead sea mud and obviously can't identify it". Eventually she asked me if it was my bag and pulled out the source of confusion--not my bomb-like ball of dead sea mud like expected but my inflatable lifejacket haha. She asked me all sorts of questions about this never seen before item (really, who doesn't travel with an inflatable life jacket?!) and especially why there was basically an empty "plug" to which I had to explain that it used to have a canister of gas attached to quickly inflate it but I got that taken away at the first airport we ever went through so it was long gone...good thing she spoke English. Satisfied, she sent me through and we went to get "stamped in" at the immigration booth. Again, expecting the third degree it went pretty smoothly, probably more smoothly because unlike all other border corssings where we're like, "oh you know, we don't know how long we'll be, or where we'll go or even what country we'll go after let alone how we get there, but you know, we'll figure it out", this one we had a well defined plan. Stay for 3 days in Jerusalem, bus to Tel Aviv, fly out to Turkey on such and such date. They liked this and we were given our barcode loose paper entrance stramp and sent on our way.
Now because Israel is essentially despised by the Arab world, there are multiple Arab countries that just will not let you enter if you have ever been to Israel. To counter this, Israel no longer stamps passports which would be permanent evidence of your visit there, thus blacklisting you from said Arab countries, and instead, gives you the above. And Jordan does not actually stamp your passport out but instead stamps your departure date on a loose paper because if they stamped out in your passport, this would be evidence that you crossed at the Israeli land border and even without an Israeli entrance stamp, evidence that you visited Israel to those who care about such things. And so it goes. It was all very bizarre.
We left the bus station, easily caught a waiting bus and headed to Jerusalem...with...SEATBELTS!! Everything was so perfect and smooth and I had to remind myself that we were in the developed world now!
Our hostel was in Old City Jerusalem and maybe Bidger knew, but I wasn't expecting what I was getting into. This part of Jerusalem is actually a fully walled off section with a few gates in and out, extremely narrow cobblestone lanes, an absolute labyrinth of pathways in mostly covered hallways flanked by food and tourist shopping stalls on all sides that went on forever and people everywhere in between...Not a user friendly place to trudge through with your 70-80L backpacks.
While we were walking we literally saw a young kid ride by on a bicycle and try to snatch a lady's purse. Welcome to Old City Jerusalem, a true assault on your senses! We finally made it to our hostel which was actually quite neat because it was built into an old stone house with low stone arches so you felt truly like you were living in a cave. Our amazing dorm room was pretty well a cave in itself and such a neat experience. Luckily the hostel was neat because it was also disgusting with sweaty smelling couches, dirty bathrooms and a dirty kitchen with no bowls, one or two forks and maybe 2 plates. Israel is super expensive, especially in the Old City so we bought groceries and Bridger, amazingly again, managed to pull off some delicious dinners in this disgustng hell hole of a kitchen. One cool thing about this neat/dirty hostel though was that it had cool rooftop views of the Old City.
Once settled, we went out to explore this insanely historically significant area. Please note that as much as I've tried to talk to people and "internet travel guide" to understand the area, we did not hire a guide in Jerusalem so what I explain here is my understanding of things, however, I definitely may have some errors! Anyways, Jerusalem really is a bit of an insane place because it is, it would seem, one of the most highly contested zones on earth with a history of animosity between different religious groups who all lay claim to the city and/or various monuments. You get the feeling this animosity still beats strong to this day unfortunately. Within the gates, the Old City is divided into four quarters: the Muslim quarter, the Christian quarter, the Jewish quarter and the Armenian quarter. We got lost (literally-in 3 days there I never really figured out how to get from A to B) in the narrow, crowded streets for awhile wandering down Via Delorosa, the supposed route that Jesus walked carrying the cross before his crucifixion.
We tried to visit Dome of the Rock, the site where Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended to Heaven and Jewish/Christians believe that Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son, but unfortuantely we visited Jerusalem on a weekend (never do this!). Apparently Friday and Saturday are pretty well holy days for all religions. As we were walking through the Muslim quarter to Dome of the Rock, Bridger stopped to go to the bathroom in one of the "public washrooms". Not only was he told that he wasn't allowed to use it because it was "only for Muslims", we were told that we could not go to Dome of the Rock because it was "only for Muslims" that day. I guess there is a functioning mosque at the top and obviously on holy days it is closed to the public. We also tried to get into the Tower of David museum, a museum detailing the history of Jerusalem, but it was a few bucks to get in and given our history with museums and hating them, we took a pass. We also visited the Holy Church of the Sepulchre, the site where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified and laid for burial.
We wandered around the church and then lined up to get into a small building which housed the supposed tomb of Jesus. It was pretty intense actually, not only because we both have a Christian background but because many people much more devote than us come here as a pilgrimage. People were bowing, praying, kissing and crying everywhere, obviously overcome by the power of the place. Even though we historically hate guided tours because of our poor attention spans, this really should have been a place where we hired a guide as it is rich with history and significance but there was really no signage of information otherwise so unfortuately we didn't learn as much as we could have. If you go, just get a guide.
Anyways, we also headed down to the Western Wall in the evening, a place of huge significance to the Jewish people as the last remaining parts of the Temple Mount and "God is always present at the Western Wall". Because it was the beginning of Shabbat, the Jewish day of Sabbath, Jewish people from all over the city congregated here and danced, sang and prayed at the wall.
As we walked all day through these streets, two things were imprinted in our minds. The ever present uniformed Israeli military and their guns spattered through the Old City walls. Having been around this in lots of places, it doesn't really phase us too much. What was slightly more unnerving was the plainclothes people also wandering through the streets, guns slung over their shoulder. We never totally understood this, but perhaps it was so that the Jewish soldiers could still be on duty while observing Shabbat...not sure but always a little taken aback to walk by a finely dressed Jewish guy in black pants, a white shirt and a gun. The other thing we noticed was that for a place so full of godly people, people were assholes. The streets were so crowded and tourists and locals alike just thew their elbows around, obviously under the mistaken belief that they and where they wanted to go was more important than where we wanted to go. At one point a woman just blew past Bridger and cut his hand open on her purse, though I suppose, in her defense, I'm sure she had no idea. Ironically the Church of hte Sepulchre was the worst. There were long lineups ( we probably waited half an hour) to get into the tomb where Jesus was buried and rose from the dead and it was unbelievable how rude people were. Bridger and I got in line behind a group of what looked to be Amish people dressed in traditional clothing...not sure. Anyways, they just kept coming and coming and coming and freaking joining the line with their people, literally pushing other "not their people" out of the way. Now I understand one or two people joining their friends in line and wouldn't complain but by the ned we had somehow been displaced by about 15 people who all obviously felt that cutting line was no problem. Then there were 3 more unrelated people who just looked around and blatantly cut into line instead of going to the back. Oh the death stare I gave all of them but what do you really say to people who probably don't speak your language to explain what I thought was a standard world custom of "lineups". Ugh, I'm still mad about it.
We also had to get money which turned into a real challenge in this area. The only ATMs in this area only dispensed $100 which is marginal when taking out your weekly cash limit for a massive ATM fee that you want to do as little of as possible. The alternative to get more was to pay "conveniently", the guy next door who 100% of the time just happened to be a money exchanger who would give you cash off your bank card for a whopping hidden commission fee. We almost got taken but luckily the machine didn't like Bridger's card. Buyer be warned! So we left the gates of the Old City and wandered around trying to find a bank which we eventually found a sign for and were directed by a local that it was just upstairs. So up we went, to the top of the stairs, into the open doorway with signs in Arabic/Hebrew all around. We found an ATM that looked a bit different from other ATMs we'd seen but hey, it was the first time taking out money in Israel so who knows what ATMs look like here. Bridger swiped his bank card and it didn't work so Bridger went to the counter and said "the ATM said if my card didn't work then come see you". Seriously you can't make shit up what happened next. The guy working looked blankly at Bridger for a minute like we must be joking, realized no this is for real and then said "This is a medical clinic. The bank is over there. It opens at 4" while pointing out the door. Sure enough, the bank was just a closed door we missed at the top of the stairs, walking into the open door on autopilot and apparently swiping our card into some unidentified machine in a medical clinic. Ya, that happened.
After our day out in the Old City we came back to our hotel completely exhausted and had a nap. The Old City was really fascinating but also really hard to navigate, quite tourist trappy and full of assholes so after one full day, I was about done with it. At this point it became really clear that I hate crowded, confined spaces and I have spent the rest my travels since avoiding them!
We came back to our hostel and I'm not sure where Bridger was but I got talking to this odd duck who was laying on the dorm bed beside me. He was a really tall, dark, bearded and oddly soft spoken guy from Romania who I noticed initially because he was just a bit restless and shifty. Let me tell you, I'm already really on edge in Jerusalem and then this conversation happened: We were small talking for awhile and he made several comments like "maybe that's why they don't talk to me", "I've never been in a hostel before and if you like it depends on who you share a room with" and other such things that indicated to me that he was feeling a bit marginalized. He was nice enough but just came across as undeniably socially awkward and had a bit of an unexplainable odd vibe about him. Then I kid you not, after a long pause, out of nowhere he neutrally says to me "Do you think I look like a terrorist?". I almost shit myself. And then he, also flatly, followed up with "someone in Romania said that to me as I walked down the street". Seriously guy, you just don't say that stuff...out loud...to strangers...especially HERE! At this point, I figured I could just keep him talking and hopefully get a bit more information to make me feel a little better about this situation! And then there was some sort of a bed fiasco where another guy came in the dorm, wondered why this guy was on his bed even though I think guy thought it was HIS bed and kicked him out. Again, seriously guy, you've been talking to me for the last half an hour on someone else's bed?! Dorm bed violation! And then he didn't seem to know what bed was his so there was a slight scuffle, slighly offended interaction before he scurried out of the room meanwhile I'm sitting on the edge of my bed praying these people don't antagonize this strange, strange man and make him angry. And then he disappeared and I didn't see him again and I secretly thanked whatever powers that be that made him disappear out of the dorm room so I might actually sleep. And this guy wasn't the only oddball we encountered in Jerusalem-man this city draws an eclectic crowd.
The next day it was still the sabbath so absolutely everything was closed so we bummed around the hostel all day. We met a lovely couple from Utah and chatted with them for a long while and they later informed us that they saw the odd guy pack up and leave our dorm at like 3 in the morning and then he was gone. So strange! And then I was buying my Turkish visa and right in the middle of it, the iPad internet broke...again. Not only did I not have my Turkish visa, we would have to make another trip into the apple service centre when we got to Tel Aviv, ugh. It was actually a long and shitty depresso day. But made much better because I ended up being able to attend my great friend Megan's wedding in Canada via FaceTime at 11:30 at night my time... It was SO awesome!!! Best use of technology so far!!!
And then Bridger and I got into another fight. We were supposed to leave Jerusalem the next day. The night before we were told that "it's going to be a busy day" and we found out that it just happened to be "Jerusalem Day", a major national pride holiday in Israel celebrating Jerusalem coming under Israeli control. So I did a bit more resarch about what this means and whether it would be safe and/or possible for us to move around that day. Turns out one of the things that happens is that hundreds of Jewish people enter through Jaffa gate and march through the entire Old City, including the Muslim quarter carrying flags and chanting. Over the years there has apparently been problems with the marchers screaming hateful, racially charged things like "Death to the Arabs" while marching through the Muslim quarter and violence has occassionally erupted as a result. I guess this year there was a petition to stop them being allowed to march through the Muslim quarter, however, it was denied and Muslim shop owners were advised to close their shops and stay inside. It was interesting because the day felt a little bit intense but also very jubilant but either way, security high. Because it was closed last time and today was my last chance, I headed to Dome of the Rock on my own, an already quite "hot" area between Muslims and Jewish people. Not only that but I had to pass through the Western Wall plaza and line up there to get in (everyone has to show their passport and pass through a metal detector before gaining admission), the place where hundreds of Jewish people were gathering and celebrating together. I'm sure unjustifiably so, but you can bet I was on hyper vigilance that day. I waited in the security line for 45 minutes before finally getting to the front and the security/military guy starts talking to me in Chinese. Then he asked if I know Spanish and we had a very small exchange in Spanish. I pass him my passport and he asks me why I look so depressed in my picture. And then I said this: "because they don't let you smile you jerk". That's right, I just called the Israeli security guy a jerk. Clearly passed through my mouth before passing through my brain so luckily he correctly interpreted it as a cheeky banter but for the love of god Ashley, don't cheeky banter wtih Israeli security! I am stupid. Could have gone either way but luckily it went my way and I continued on up the walkway to the Dome of the Rock. Interestly, the entrie wall of the tunnel leading up to it was lined with riot shields. Obviously things can escalate here quickly! To be honest, maybe it was because I didn't take a guided tour so didn't know that much but it was a bit underwhelming. I got some pics and got out of there.
I then headed over to the Tower of David museum (remember the one we walked away from because they asked us to pay)--somehow I got wind that it was FREE because it was Jerusalem day and I'll do anything for free. The museum really reinforced just how many groups have ruled Jerusalem over the course of history-it really is a city that has continually changed hands.
In an effort to save cash, we took the public tram to the bus station to catch our bus. When we walked up, I was shocked to see that the bus station was actually a huge inside terminal. Clearly SE Asia is still with me because for some unexplainable reason, I was expecting a little dirt patch with buses all around and once again, I had to remind myself that we were travelling in a developed country. We got dropped of starving at the bus station in Tel Aviv and dropped $15 ea for a Mcdonalds meal--did I mention how insanely expensive Israel is?! We don't even understand how people can travel here for longer than a week. From the bus station we needed to get a taxi to the hostel and at that point, we apparently remembered we were in a developed country and erroneously assumed that the meter would be started automatically. False. The driver pretty well took us for a ride and fast talked us and by the time we figured out we were screwed, all our bags were in the trunk and we just surrendered the 6 odd rip off bucks.
We got dropped off at our amazing hostel and even more amazing, we were sharing the dorm again with our Utah friends from Jerusalem. They were so lovely! Our first day we walked some 6 km in flip flops (why?!? my knees were totally shot and needed about a week of minimal walking when we got to Turkey to recover) to the mall of the apple store to get our iPad fixed...again. One nice thing was that there was a beautiful sunset as we walked along the beach to the mall.
Luckily he fixed it and for free so we were pretty happy and thought we'd celebrate with a drink. Bridger ordered his beer and I ordered a rum and coke...except only the bottle of coke came until I asked for the rum which he brought. And then charged me for a full pop and a full rum. It may have been my most expensive rum yet...or at least tied with the accidental double captain Morgan's/Bacardi rum and coke in Phnom Penh. Rum and cokes are a real budget buster and this is why I've pretty well given up drinking on this trip.
My gosh, the best thing about Tel Aviv was just how beautifully liberal it was. Everyone was running around in short shorts, tiny tank tops and bikinis. Now after a good chunk of time in Muslim middle east proper, it felt so good just to sweat it out in appropriate for the weather clothing. I was so happy! Not to mention that it was SO hot in Tel Aviv, even the Israeli's were commenting on it.
One of our days we, again, walked with the intention to explore the old city for half a day and then hit the Mediterranean beaches for the other half. We made it about half hour in the old city. Old cities are old news for us. We hit the beach and bathing suited and actually shamelessly hugged and touched eachother in public-it was an epic change! I was actually shocked how cold the water was but refeshing in the like 30 some degree heat. The goal was to go to the beach for the full day the next day...
That night we decided to have a party night out on the town in Tel Aviv so we pre-drank an entire bottle of wine for me, a bunch of beers for Bridger and walked to the neighboring district. Not going to get into details here but we somewhow both ended up super drunk. Maybe one day I'll tell the story but not this day. Anyways, the next morning I was completely knocked out until 12:30 at which point I got up to experience the most bitter hangover I can remember in a long time. Thank goodness Bridger was in a bit better shape than me and he could take care of me a bit and make us a delicious lunch...which I subsequently ate slowly while sitting on the couch by the bathroom because I was 100% sure I was going to puke. I didn't. Either way, so much for the beach. And this was how we spent our dreamy last day in Israel.
We had to take a taxi to the airport for our early morning flight and we paid more than we would have for an airport run at home. Not gonna lie, it was painful. At the airport we had to actually pass through "security" (i.e. a man asking us questions) before even being allowed to the check in counter. The guy asked us all sorts of questions, more than the inital immigration officer, and thank goodness for Bridger because we just get flustered and forgetful with rapid fire questions, so at least between the two of us we were able to tag team and get out our answers. You'd be surprised on a long trip how easily you forget where your last stop was...and if there's one thing that raises suspicion is when two people "can't remember" where they came from before this place! He asked us questions about where we've been, where we're going, who packed our bags where they were stored etc. and then left no doubts about the reasons when he bluntly said "I'm asking because of bombs". Ok then sir.
We enjoyed our few days in Israel and it was definitely better than spending $250 more on flights and getting nothing from it. But it's not a place that I'll be rushing back to anytime in the near future. I'm sure there is a ton more to see and the beauty of traveling in such a small country is that you actually might see it all, but from our limited sampling, it wasn't my kind of place. Fine enough, there are a ton of tourists there. I couldn't believe how many tourists Israel had actually, considering they had all but stopped coming to neighboring Jordan. Which felt a bit ironic to us because, for all the challenges of Jordan, we honestly felt much more safe and relaxed there than Israel. Not that Israel is dangerous, it's not unless you walk into the potentially dangerous zones which mostly you're not allowed into anyways, it's just different.
Onwards to Turkey and we were so excited because it was one of our top Middle East spots we wanted to visit on this trip!