I recently renewed my passport and was looking forward to having Israel as the first stamp in my new passport book. But upon our arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport, I was surprised to be handed a paper entry ticket with my photo on it instead of a stamp. Because of strained relations in the Middle East, it’s safer for travelers to not have a physical stamp from Israel in their passports in case they travel to a country that is a mean girl who doesn’t like seeing that particular stamp displayed and bullies you for it. So Israel, about three years ago, started providing paper entry and exit tickets instead of the stamps.
I continued to be surprised by the security measures I encountered throughout our two week trip. Entering Jordan from Israel via bus required passing through at least six security and/or passport checkpoints. Armed guards from Israel and then Jordan, with Glocks strapped to their thighs and machine guns worn as cross-body purses, boarded our tour bus, inspecting passports and entry stamps, and asking questions about nationalities and the nature of our trip. It helped that our journey into Jordan was part of an organized tour and we experienced Interrogation-Lite rather than the Interrogation-Heavy that could have awaited us as individual entrants. At one of the checkpoints reached after passing through the West Bank and entering back into a sliver of Israel, our bus was inspected to make sure we were not smuggling any Palestinians across the border. Guards walked through the bus, looking into each row of seats with such scrutiny that I half expected a Palestinian passenger to materialize in my lap.
I was shocked to learn that our Israeli escort would not be escorting us into Jordan since Israeli-passport holders were not allowed entry into the country. Before departing our bus, our escort passed out copies of step-by-step instructions to follow if any of us were detained at the border on the return trip back to Israel due to a prolonged interrogation. We entered through the northern border of Jordan River Crossing in Irbid/Beit She’an, which was known as the easier border but was out of the way. On the return journey, we would be crossing at the eastern border of Allenby/King Hussein Bridge, thirty-five miles from Amman. This was the more conveniently-located border, but our Israeli escort sheepishly explained that this border was a tad bit more challenging. Clearly “tad bit” is a relative term depending on how much regular turmoil you’re used to experiencing in the security department. When she mentioned that although rare, some former tour participants had been detained for up to five hours for additional questioning, my eyes bugged out of my head. The cliff-notes to the instructions stated that if you were one of the unfortunate ones to be detained, the bus would wait for you up to thirty minutes but if you were held up longer than that, then you were on your own and would need to take one of the shared taxis outside of the immigration station back to Jerusalem. For a country that has basically been at conflict since its inception, being detained for prolonged questioning was nothing out of the ordinary and hand-holding was not an offered option to pampered tour participants like myself.
Once we crossed the border, our Jordanian guide joined our bus and introduced us to an armed Tourism Police officer, named Rami, who would be accompanying us for the duration of our trip. The need for an actual branch of Jordan’s police department to be created to tend solely to tourists was at once terrifying and comforting.
Our first stop was the ancient city of Jerash, followed by a stop in the capital city of Amman, before we made our way to the Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp where we would stay for two nights. Driving through Jordan, you could see why it’s the world’s fourth water-poorest country. While fertile, the land is an arid expanse of sand and desert mountains. You also feel like you’ve traveled back in time. The main highway on either side is a one-lane road, paved in some parts, a dirt lane in others, never straight for more than a mile at a time. As we zigzagged our way south through the mountains and valleys, I couldn’t help but giggle every time I spotted Jordan’s version of “watch out, curve ahead” displayed on the side of the highway. It was evident that Jordanian roads were in dire need of Viagra.
Along our journey, our guide stopped to pick up a traditional Jordanian dessert for us to nom on from a street vendor. The dessert, called Kanafeh, is a Middle Eastern pastry made out of soft cheese, rose water, sugar-based syrup, kaymak (local dairy product akin to clotted cream), topped with pistachio nuts. Warm, sweet, gooey and delicious.
During one of our rest stops, I was pleased to find a large bazaar selling Dead Sea face and body products, souvenirs, and an assortment of Jordanian jewelry and miscellaneous tchotchkes. I told Michael I would browse around while he went to the restroom. When he returned a few minutes later, he found me clutching a shopping basket half-way filled with Jordanian goodies. Out of the thirty-three tour participants, I was the only one in the bazaar with a shopping basket. Where and how I got this shopping basket, I have no idea. When I shop, I enter a trance-like state that’s akin to tantric meditation. I become one with the wares, my tunnel-vision laser focused on the shelves in front of me. When we made eye contact, it wasn’t so much surprise as expectant dismay that I saw reflected in Michael’s eyes. I immediately went into defense mode, explaining that I was performing a civil service, buffering the local economy one purchase at a time. Michael was only too happy to arrive at the Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp, where I didn’t have the possibility of doing any kind of shopping.
In the middle of the Jordanian desert, a few miles away from Petra, the camp was comprised of thirty or so tents housing mostly two people (with a few tents reserved for single occupancy). The camp was powered by generators that provided electricity from 6:30am until midnight. Hot water was available from around 7:30pm until it ran out, usually by the middle of the night. Each tent had one electric socket and one lightbulb that served as the only source of light. There was no heat in the tents and each bed had three heavy blankets to get you through the frigid night, where the temperature dipped into the upper 30s/lower 40s. With mittens, two pairs of socks, fleece-lined pants, and cocooned like a matryoshka doll in a tank top, followed by a long-sleeves shirt, then a hooded sweater, and topped with the three blankets, the nights were manageable. The only heat source in the common areas was a small stove in the dining hall where we ate the communal breakfasts and dinners and a large fireplace/stove in the main social hall where delicious Bedouin tea was served after dinner. The combination of black tea, cardamom, cinnamon, sage, and sugar was hypnotizing. Sitting cross-legged in front of the blazing fire after dinner, sipping on the Bedouin tea, I felt like an Arabian princess. Albeit, a grungy one since showering in the 40-degree weather was not appealing.
After spending two days exploring Petra and Wadi Rum, it was time to head back to Israel. The return trip across the border was intense. It took three hours to get through security and one hour to get through immigration at the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge border crossing. Four members of our group were detained for additional questioning. One was plucked from the pack pretty much as soon as he stepped off the bus. Michael and I were fortunate to get a friendly immigration agent who Michael dialed up the charm for.
“Your name is Michelle? Michael?”
“Michael. Like Michael Jackson.”
“Tee hee hee!” Blushing and smiling, she waved us through to the baggage claim.
Those in our group who were in the next line over were not so fortunate. Hilda the cranky Hun at the kiosk to our right was asking for folks to recite their DNA code to her backwards while balancing on one foot. You knew just by looking at her dour face that you were not going to have a pleasant encounter.
“What is your name?”
“Where were you born?”
“Why did you visit Jordan?”
“How long was your trip?”
“What’s your father’s name?”
“What’s your grandfather’s name?”
“What is the width of Kim Kardashian’s ass in centimeters?”
Hilda was not only firing off questions like Rambo, she was opinionated to boot.
“How many countries have you been to?”
“You travel too much!”
“Where are you staying?”
“No, I don’t want your address! I want the name.”
And this was just part of the general questioning. God knows what happened behind closed doors during the additional interrogations.
These encounters with security and immigration stressed me out every time, but on our final exit out of Israel, I grinned like the Cheshire Cat when the security agent let us know she had to ask a few personal questions to confirm our relationship and I looked sweetly to Michael to answer them.
“Where do you live?”
“Do you live together?”
“How are you related?”
“How long have you been together?”
This was my kind of interrogation. Inside I was hoping she would keep going. When is her birthday? What does she want for her present? How much do you love her? On a scale of one to ten, how amazing is she? If my career in HR doesn’t pan out, I would be well-suited for a role in the Israeli Special Forces, interrogating hapless boyfriends, fiancés, and husbands with wild abandon.