"there is no sahil."

Saturday, February 24, 2007

WANDERLUST PART I: Christmas Vacation

FEBRUARY 2, 2007
A Brief Introduction to “WANDERLUST PART I: Caitlin’s Christmas Vacation”
I’ll start at the beginning. I’m piecing this together from what I remember about my trip and what I think about it now, the writing I did while I was travelling, the writing other people did about our travelling (Yasmeen gets credit here for whatever I jack from her blog), and for lack of anything better, the scrap or two of paper that were my lifelines while on the road, with the makeshift itineraries I drew up and then amended after-the-fact, a line for each day when I was just too beat to bother breaking open the journal when I got home to the hostel or house or wherever each night. So, details aren’t spread equally across the countries. Bummer.

To set the scene…
I left on December 14th at 8 o’clock in the morning. Our plan was to go to Syria, Lebanon, come back down through Syria and back to Jordan and then on to Israel and Palestine to spend a day or two before Christmas in Jerusalem and go to Christmas eve mass in Bethlehem, then come back home to Jordan on Christmas. I had a flight to catch at 2am on December 26th. India and Pakistan are another story.

SO, we took off in a van from Abdali, Yasmeen, Nick, Del and Deborah. Five people is kind of a big group to travel with, but it worked out and there was no lack of shoulders to snooze on in the junky old Cadillacs and services we rode in from country to country.

In a chilly bed in our room in the Ghazal Hotel in Damascus. Totally enamoured with this city. So different from Amman, and I’ve been here a few hours. We left at 8 this morning and got through the border by 12:30, definitely counting ourselves lucky with that one. There was a pretty ridiculously ritzy and bizarrely out-of-place duty free shop at the border that served to keep us occupied in the 2 or 3 hours we had to kill waiting for them to “fax” our documents to Damascus and acquire permission to send us on our way with tourist visas. We also kept busy studying all of the people who came through the border office. We saw quite the variety of Arabs come in and out, but much more fun was the foreign line—Nick and I had some good fun playing guess the nationality with the occasional Turks and other randomers headed to Assad’s Syria. And yes, the sign at the border did in fact say “Welcome to Assad’s Syria.” That guy has a pretty serious moustache.

Anyway, we finally got through the border after being sent back and forth from customs to immigration to a “stamp booth” to money changers and so on. We slept in the van and I awoke in heavy, slow traffic coming into the city. The services (share taxis) here are huge white vans, the taxis are stubby older European cars, not like the sporty new nissans and toyotas in Amman, and these taxis have character. I get a kick out of the odd taxi with more than one Abdullah photo and interior neon lights—no comparison. The taxis here are decked out. We’re talking mini-posters of Assad, Nasrallah, AND Ahmadinejad, stuffed animals, snow globes, action figures, and as many rear-view mirror accessories as space allows. The public buses were also quite a treat. They’re like old old greyhounds in the chrome and retro pastels with enamelled decorative designs along the sides and front, covered in similar kitschy trinkets and detailed like the jingle trucks in Amman.

Deborah and I were cracking up in the car because of the ridiculous horn that the bus we were driving next to had. I swear, you have never heard anything like it in your life. Actually, I retract that statement—you’ve heard something like it if you’ve ever seen Rocky Horror Picture Show. At the very end when people are getting zapped, it’s like the sound of the zapping gun or whatever it is that is used, kind of like a “blee-dee-be-de-be-bweeeeeep-bleeeeee.” IT was also reminiscent of something from Willy Wonka and could also be likened to Gizmo from Gremlins singing a short song.
Our van let us off at the main bus station in downtown Damascus and the five of us put our backpacks on and set off single file with the name of a hostel and some very dodgy walking directions (facing the souq, turn left and walk under the overpass, it’s down one of those streets on the left), courtesy of a friend of Yasmeen. Miraculously, after only about 15 minutes, we found it. Sure enough, we were very warmly welcomed by Ahmed at this hostel, who became even warmer when we mentioned the name of the friend who had told us about the hostel. We dumped our stuff and left to wander around and also locate an atm.

The juice shops on the street were everywhere and just looked to good, so we got some pomegranate juice and it was amazing and no one got sick. Not eating street food is just lame. Build up your immune system. Introduce your body to new micro organisms. After this delicious vitamin C booster, we window shopped, enjoying the shock and novelty of the Hizbollah, Nasrallah etc. souvenir key chains and other paraphernalia. Eventually we came across an old movie theatre and decided to duck in. Sure enough, in keeping with tradition for downtown movie theatres in Arab countries, it was playing an American kung-fu rip-off Jean Claude Van Damme B list movie from 1992 and had posters up for some questionable and remotely racy 70s American bikini movies. We caught the last 10 minutes of the bad kung-fu movie and made it through about a half an hour of the Indian murder mystery that followed. It was worth the 50 Syrian pounds ($1) to see how amused and surprised the ticket sellers were that we were interested in going in. After that excursion, we went to dinner and argileh near the bus station where we had been that afternoon and on the way home we were drawn into a sweet shop with lots of people hanging around and sharing hot kanafa on trays outside, so we did the same—five forks and a half a kilo of hot kanafa. Kanafa is the dessert of Jordan and Syria does it pretty well too—it’s generally hard to go wrong with if it’s hot—it’s goat cheese with shredded pastry filo dough on top and sprinkled with pistachios and watered-down honey. You feel your arteries clogging.

From there, we walked through the famous main drag of the covered souq as it was closing down, and then we popped by the Umayyad Mosque to see it at night. It was freezing out. When we were really on our way home, we stopped to use the internet and it turned out to be the very same place that our friend Stewart had used regularly when he lived in Damascus over the summer. Funny how that happens.

Like I mentioned before, I didn’t expect there to be much of a difference between Amman and Damascus other than there being a lot more to do and see. I was immediately struck by how old and beautiful and European the city is. The colours are darker, older, less austere and uniform and unnatural than the sticky PC beige of Amman. We’re stared at noticeably less, even in a group of five. Someone even asked nick and me for directions when we were out yesterday. Not too much English is spoken; even the menu at the rather new, pseudo-hip café we went to yesterday was only in Arabic. I was telling friends today that the fountains, monuments, flags and photos of Assad, coupled with the cobblestone streets and little old men in wool jackets and caps kind of make me feel like in what I would imagine a large city in Estonia to have been like in 1982 or perhaps occupied Poland, but a lot happier. Generally, a lot of things about Damascus are reminiscent of 1982. Automobiles would be one example. There is much less veiling on all levels here, which I was not expecting at all. I thought it would be more socially conservative than Jordan and that has not been true at all.

(December 15 &16)

Today we walked to the University of Damascus, just to check it out, and of course were denied entry as we are not students and it is also Friday…and they probably don’t get a lot of people our age and nationality coming for a stroll around the campus all that often. No big deal. Before that we walked through another one of the endless souqs of the city, one that was just food, and the shopkeepers were just opening up. We took a cab to Bab Touma, the Christian quarter of Damascus, and stopped into a beautiful little Armenian church. We walked around for a while, the three of us who took one cab waiting and looking for the other two (we found each other on the opposite side of Bab Touma about an hour later) and scouting out places to eat and just enjoying the narrow streets. Bab Touma was sort of like Venice without the water—lots of little shrines and churches with small front courtyards and gates, and the tiny streets and alleys too narrow for any cars to be driving, although we did see one very laudable demonstration. We also went to a little café and had wine and cheese for a little pick-me-up which probably added to this feeling of mine. We’ve made it a habit to stop anywhere we see delicious or foreign looking food, which tends to be on average every 2 or 3 hours—it’s just so cheap and fresh—bakery bread, hot pastries, fresh juices, every kind of olive you could think of in the souqs, sajj bread made on a big hot plate, and of course the old shawerma staple. Before our wine & cheese lunch, we were walking down a street in Bab Touma and smelled something heavenly so we all started kind of sniffing the air to get an idea of the direction it was coming from. A couple of British boys came out of nowhere and asked if they could help us, I guess I would have offered my help to five white kids sniffing the air in the middle of an intersection if I saw them; and they directed us to a little window about thirty feet away where a little man was sitting with a table piled with fresh thick semolina pitas behind him, so we forked over the fifteen cents and each got one to munch on. While we were sitting at the café later, I decided that the places we had been stopping and the cheap snacks and delicacies we had been having were just too amazing to forget, so began the idea for a “Fat Kid’s Guide to the Middle East,” detailing fun food adventures through the Arab world. Look for it in bookstores in the next couple of years. I think it will become a reality eventually. Not to mention a bestseller.

On our last day in Damascus, we set out early for the Great Mosque. We had a blast putting on special clothes in the putting on special clothes room, and the mosque itself was just huge. I love mosques, especially the really famous ones, because it is thoroughly interesting to see the groups of Muslims coming from all over the place to visit and pray there. Mosques are also great because they’re generally spacious and have an outside component to them, they’re not intimidating, and they are relatively private when it’s not Friday. Deborah and I sat down on the carpet and just took in the scene and people-watched for a while. The carpets covering the floor of the mosque were beautiful. The only thing I did not enjoy about the Umayyad Mosque was how cold my feet were walking from the Mosque through the courtyard and back to where I left my shoes. That was not very much fun at all.

After the Mosque, we had big plans for doing the souq. First we went to Azem Palace to see popular life through the ages in Damascus depicted by scary little mannequins. Just one quick FYI: Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the World! DUH! Anyhoo, we wandered through the souqs from the gold souq to the underwear souq to the ones selling nuts and sweets to coats to Qur’ans to kitchenwares and really everything you can think of, up until you get back to the main drag where it’s just everyday clothes, argilehs and souvenirs. I think all of us bought an argileh and then we had to do more research for our book at this bustling ice cream shop where we all got a cone of croquant or Arabic flavour ice cream (a variation on vanilla) dipped in pistachios.

Yasmeen, Del and Nick were pretty beat and so headed back in the direction of the hostel to do some internet and nap, and Deborah and I kept up the souq and street wandering, going back through the food souq we had seen opening the day before and stopping to watch some good butchering and then bread making, splitting a strange spicy calzone type snack that we were fascinated by, and then I attempted to buy some clementines for our trip to Lebanon the next day, thinking about 15 would be more than enough. I gave the boy about 25 cents, and apparently fruit is cheap like everything else in Syria and so we wound up with a couple of pounds of clementines that I toted around until we got back to Jordan. As it began to get dark, Deborah and I stumbled upon the used clothing souq of Damascus. If you know me, you know I freaked out. We spent as long as we could there without being late to dinner with the others, and I made out with a sweet new winter coat, olive green, with a hood and toggles. I have been wearing the thing since I got it and I’ve not yet washed it (gross). That night we ate at an adorable café with four tables (two downstairs and two in the loft with a ladder going up) and a very gracious owner who told us he would make us whatever we wanted (I believe the orders that night ranged from scrambled eggs with cheese to steak to pasta carbonara to ribs) and adding to our Syrian coincidences, had served lunch to two of our other friends from University of Jordan the day before. It was a nice way to end our mini-tour of Damascus.

The next day (December 17) we got up and out pretty early and were on the road to Lebanon in a big old yellow Cadillac boat of a vehicle, four of us in the back and one in the front, the trunk packed with our backpacks and new argilehs. Our border experience was quick and easy, and other than being sent to change money with a man through the chain link fence, was not really that sketchy at all. The drive was scenic, and everyone is accurate and not exaggerating when they call Lebanon beautiful and Syria interesting and cheap. That about sums it up. We found the hostel that our friend Ahmed had referred us to no problem, and this hostel we were thrilled to learn had not only hot water but heating too! I slept without my fleece for two days! Our first afternoon in Lebanon we took a walk around the downtown and just kind of took it all in. New big buildings, nice big roads and nice big luxury cars, big concrete sidewalks with no one on them, and lots of glass. Fancy coffee shops and stores with gorgeous Christmas displays in the windows, all closed. Roads in the downtown, closed.

We followed the street signs that were everywhere in English and Arabic, until we made it to the AUB campus where we walked around for a bit, stopped to get pizza, and then availed of the opportunity to accost any student on the campus knowing they would speak impeccable English, and sure enough the first guy we asked lived on the same floor as my friend Nabil who had offered to show us around the city. He and his friend Wajih took us for a walk along the corniche, and gave us an excellent insider narration of hotspots and landmarks around the place. In keeping with tradition, we ran into another friend from University of Jordan, Laila, walking with her boyfriend along the corniche. Nabil and Wajih took us to a great café near the university, of course small and hip and a historic hangout of the intellectuals and leftists. And the food was ridiculous.

The next day was sad. After breakfasting together at one of the above mentioned fancy coffee shops, we bid farewell to Deborah who had a plane to catch to Texas, leaving from Queen Alia International. Then we lost Nick to stomach discomfort and it was me, Yasmeen and Del. We decided that we would brave it and check out the protests in the downtown. Things were pretty quiet since it was just the late morning and things are generally quiet at protests like that unless there is a musical performance, orator, or fighting, so it was cool to see what it’s like day-to-day there. No one really said anything to us and people were just kind of hanging out or sleeping. It was crazy to watch everything escalate in the news knowing we had been right there a couple of weeks before.

(December 18)
It’s funny to think about where my mind was exactly one year ago at this time. I wish I’d brought “from Beirut to Jerusalem” with me but I suppose that would have been a little too appropriate and kind of cheesy and what would be the point of trying to read that on a two week vacation in four countries?
The kids want to go to bed so this will be short.
Today was our first and only full day in Beirut. No one thought we should come here because of the current political climate, but it turns out there is enough razor wire and police to barricade every street and guard each and every person in this city or so it seems. I definitely had no idea what it would be like here or what to expect; in part a casualty of final exams and scarce access to news, but I did not expect 3-8 police and military personnel on every street corner. Not just police; we’re talking fully uniformed and armed soldiers with really big guns. To bump it up a notch, the evidence of this summer is everywhere and it’s just really awful. In parts of the city you can’t tell what is from this summer and what is leftover from 1975-1995. On the way in to the city yesterday we passed that huge suspension highway bridge that was halved by bombing, and it’s a drop in the bucket, really and truly.

Nabil and his friend Wajih have been amazing to us and I owe them bigtime. Nabil is a student at American University of Beirut whom I met at a course I took at the United Nations University in Amman called “The Politicization of Religion in the Middle East.” I mentioned to him that I was planning on coming to Lebanon and he said to get in touch with him, and that we did. What a far cry AUB is from the University of Jordan! The campus is beautiful; they do own part of the beach and waterfront, and a lighthouse that is perpetually destroyed by the Israelis (kind of strange), and in terms of appearance and social interaction, we might as well have been on the Amherst campus. We tried so hard to find sushi tonight, but all of the places we had in mind weren’t open yet or we couldn’t find—sometimes Americans just want to eat dinner at 6:30pm instead of 9…
We’ve decided to go ahead and go to Tripoli tomorrow and stay overnight, and then come back to Beirut on Wednesday, have the evening and stay overnight and then head back to Jordan first thing in the morning on Thursday (the 21st!).

Tripoli was great. It was a sharp contrast after being in not-so-bustling Beirut; for one it generally resembled Damascus more so than Beirut—less big, empty, swanky stores selling Versace and just a more old city feel, and also because it was actually in working order. We took the bus from Beirut this morning after having breakfast at a quirky little café/boutique that would fit right in on Commercial street in Portland or really anywhere in downtown Northampton. We did our usual wandering around upon arrival and took rooms in an old hotel that won us over with its high ceilings, huge hallway, beautiful old moulding and stained glass. “What character,” we thought, but it was only later that we realized it was more grotty and cold than charming. Yasmeen and I wound up sleeping in one of the twin beds (away from the window) with all of our clothes on and all of the blankets, and we had a visitor knock on our door at about 2am, needless to say we didn’t answer it and boy were we glad we’d locked the door after they tried the knob…yikes! Regardless, we really enjoyed the city.

We saw the citadel, walked through the souqs—used clothes followed by food, couldn’t ask for more, had some awesome fish at a tiny café near the corniche, and then Yasmeen and I spent the evening with Sara Shati, the teacher who taught me the Arabic alphabet back in the Pioneer valley! She taught Arabic at Umass, Smith and Hampshire as a Fulbright scholar and lived in an apartment next to King house on the smith campus last year. At the end of the school year she went back to Tripoli to continue teaching in public school. We were welcomed unbelievably warmly, were introduced to her mother and sister, taken for a narrated driving tour through the city, treated to fresh carrot juice and then a late dinner at two of Sara’s favourite places and then went back to her apartment to hang out for a while. It was just so nice to see her again and I don’t think either of us could really believe we were reconnected not even a year later, in Lebanon. Funny where you wind up.

The next day we got up and out of that hotel as fast as possible and we went to have a better look at the citadel which had been closing when we got there the day before. They were charging way too much for entry so Yasmeen and I were cheap and sat outside chatting with a nice Lebanese soldier. From there we went to Rafat Hallab Sweets, Tripoli’s most famous sweet shop, and instead of sampling the Arab sweets they are most famous for like kanafa and baklava, the ice cream menu was just too tempting and we all had amazing ice cream before packing back on the bus to Beirut. On the way back to Beirut, we made a special request for the driver to pull over and drop us off on the side of the highway as close as possible to Jbeil, otherwise known as Byblos, one of Lebanon’s more famous (but not crowded) attractions and one of the Decapolis cities. They had a great museum and the city was huge and in various states of preservation after so many stages of inhabitation. It’s also right on the water, and that is just beautiful within itself. There were a couple of fishermen standing out in the water on some exposed rocks, and I regret being unable to take a good photo of them out there. It could’ve been anywhere along the coast of Maine. The bus took us off the highway and on smaller roads along the water on the way to Tripoli and back, and I felt a sense of familiarity and homesickness seeing boarded up summer homes and junky hotels closed for the off-season.

(December 20)
Watching some quality al jazeera English and we’re finally going out to sushi for our last night here. Tomorrow we’re going from Beirut to Jerusalem, or trying to.

Turns out we were just too tired to get from Beirut to Jerusalem in one day so we had an overnight pit-stop in Amman. At the Lebanon-Syria border the guards were either not amused that we were trying to go to Syria visaless a second time or they were just really busy at the embassy and border offices that day. Needless to say, we got some good card playing in and could probably draw you an accurate map of the duty free shop.

The duty free shop at the Lebanon-Syria border is one of the strangest things I have ever seen. I welcome any attempts at explanation. First of all, the duty free was located about 200 feet before the actual border station, so you had to technically go back towards Lebanon to get to it. When we walked out of the border station to go over to it, a guard told us that no, we couldn’t, it was off-limits and mamnoua (forbidden). That was hilarious because if not people crossing the border, who shops there? There is no parking lot, and you must exit Lebanon at the Lebanese border office and drive a ways before reaching this duty free, clearly located at the Syrian arrival border office, so it’s not like people drive on over from Beirut to do some shopping at the duty free. Anyway, after having the guard from the border office (who had directed us over to the shop in the first place to get coffee and look around because he knew we would be there a while) argue on our behalf with the guard who told us “mamnoua”, it was decided that we were indeed allowed to regress back to the duty free. To begin with there was a massive duty free shop like any well-stocked airport duty free with your regular electronics, luxury clothes, bags, sunglasses and watches, chocolate, sweets, (ridiculously cheap) alcohol and cigarettes. All really nice stuff. They also had a nice restaurant and a brand-new Dunkin’ Donuts (not open yet) which is the only name-brand Dunkin’ I’ve seen in the Middle East to date (in Jordan we have a rip-off called Donuts Factory). Now the strange thing about the restaurant was that we were the only customers. There were other people there, but it took us about two minutes to realize the reason they were wearing blue and id tags and only nursing coffee and cigarettes was that they were all employees in adjacent duty free shop. Things get weirder.

Within the duty free was also a large grocery store. This grocery store had nothing really perishable, a lot of bulk goods, mostly dry and canned, household cleaning stuff, and toiletries. Neither was it a grocery store of normal size for this region or normal goods. It was roughly ¾ the size of an American grocery store, and featured such products as SYSCO cherry pie filling in restaurant-size cans like the ones we use at the nursing home I work at in the summer, HUGE bottles of French’s mustard, Newman’s Own Newman-O cookies (AH!), Lipton soup packets, Hershey’s kisses (WHAT?!), and even an ORGANIC beauty care section with brands like Kiss My Face and Tom’s of Maine ripoffs. I just could not believe it—you cannot buy stuff like this anywhere here, specifically those random brands and I think the real question here is who makes cherry pie in Syria?

So as you can gather, I was thoroughly amazed to find this grocery store here and to see what ridiculous products it was attempting to sell to whatever secret customers use it (we were the only people there who were not employees). I’m still puzzled by it. I asked one of the many idle employees how long the store had been open, thinking maybe it was brand-new and just establishing itself, going through a rather slow business-pick-up, but no, it had in fact been open for almost 2 years. I asked who shopped there and he said that people did, but more used to before the war. I was thinking perhaps restaurateurs or American embassy staff or something like that, that maybe it acts as a makeshift commissary for Americans in either country, but I have no idea. Strange. Regardless, we sure enjoyed those caramel Hershey kisses.

Our taxi driver, who had agreed to take us through to Amman and wait at the border for us, was understandably annoyed after about 5 hours of sitting around in the border building which had no heat and was under construction and so exposed to the outside. When we were finally granted re-entry to Syria to get back home to Amman, our crazy driver took us to the bus station in Damascus instead of all the way to Amman. We had all been very happy with the price he gave us for the trip, and we had made it clear we wanted to go all the way through to Amman but we should’ve known something was up by how little of a fight he put up for the price…instead we realized when we rolled in to the bus station that he was taking us only to Damascus. A small scene ensued, and Nick and Del took our friend the driver into the police station where they argued more while Yasmeen and I sat in the cab mostly groggy from napping and just kind of fed up with the situation, not wanted to add any more cooks to the kitchen. After their little pow-wow in the station, we finally paid what we had agreed on which was lame since it was cheap for Beirut to Amman but rather expensive for Beirut to Damascus, so the guy made out pretty well. When there are foreigners and an argument, people pounce. I’ve found this to be true more so in India than anywhere else, but this definitely happened at the station in Damascus. The first man on the scene was a one-legged elderly fellow who kept saying in a terrible terrible attempted New York accent, “Be cool man, come on now man, why don’t cha give the guy a break, give him some money man, be cool man ya know,” and he informed us that he used to work for the American marines. The whole situation was so ridiculous and just absurd that I couldn’t help but chuckle a little through all of the frustration and fatigue. It’s 6pm, we’re at the Damascus bus station and a peg-leg man is telling us to be cool. Excellent. We found another cab to take us back to Amman and by this time it was dark out. Time flies when you sit at the Syrian border all day.

When we got to the Jordanian border we all felt pretty happy to be home and to not have to deal with the administration of Assad’s Syria (Note: This would not be the first time we were elated to return to Jordan, please see next section re: Trip to Israel). Little things like queues at the border office, heating, generally less hassle, less incompetence and more order than Syria’s borders were welcomed. Additionally, we just happened to hit it at the right time…
At the border coming in to Jordan there were a lot of sweater-clad, well-built men of medium height, all with big faces, ruddy complexions and little knit caps on their heads. Then we saw their wives in the bathroom at the border with their children, brushing their teeth and getting ready for bed. Bed was the floor and seats of ancient mini-buses piled high with luggage strapped to the top and filled with people and blankets. They all smiled hugely at us in the bathroom, we smiled back, and then one of them asked us something in a language that we did not understand. Then another one tried. We smiled and lifted our eyebrows in the international “ihavenoideawhatyouaresayingtomeahhhh!” facial expression, and finally one of them said “Muslim? Hajj?” and we nodded no and repeated “student in Jordan” in Arabic and English a couple of times. It took Yasmeen and me a second, but we realized that these were buses of families driving to HAJJ from AZERBAIJAN. Can you even imagine?

A Cut & Paste

Because I think that she does a great job of it, I am plagiarizing Yasmeen’s account of our trip to Palestine and Israel. Background on Yasmeen: Yasmeen was one of my best friends here last semester, and strangely enough we were the first person each other met on the program, in the Frankfurt airport way back when. We had the same classes last semester and also spent a lot of time together taking on the city and smoking argileh with her host brother, Anmar. She is from San Franscisco but goes to GWU, her mother is American-born Lebanese (hence the Arabic name), and she has a brother who will be a famous extreme sports star one day (he is currently a sponsored biker). Yasmeen is now in Dakar, Senegal for the second half of her junior year, perfecting her French and learning Wolof. What a year.

Regardless, she is a good writer and more concise and interesting than I am, with better details too. So…to set the scene, I’ll cut and paste her account from exactly where I left of in mine. Stuff in [these brackets] is my addition, good luck not getting utterly confused.

Yasmeen’s Account
We finally rolled into our own bus station downtown at 9pm, resigned to the fact that we would have to spend the night in Jordan before going on to Jerusalem. One night made all the difference. We started out bright and totally refreshed the next morning, ready once again to take on another border. Good thing too, because we ended up needing all our patience…

The Jordanian-Israeli border is in the middle of the desert. After paying our Jordanian exit tax and being repeatedly assured that our passports would not be stamped, we boarded a bus that would take us from one side of no-mans-land to the other. When the bus stopped, immediately all of our bags were unloaded and we had to turn our bags and passports over to the Israeli guards. At this point began exactly what Allison, my resident director, had prepared me for. As my friends and the other people on the bus got their passports back, I was called inside, sent through the metal detector and x-ray machine that other Arabs were going through, and asked to wait while the others moved on. My friends, the angels that they are, waited right there for me as everyone else moved on to the next stage in the process. I waited for an IDF agent, who took me aside for fifteen minutes or so and grilled me. In his defense, he is fantastic at his job – he knew my life story by the time we were done. Apparently I was deemed nonthreatening enough to move on to round two, which is the questioning that everyone goes through.

All of us stood in line, waiting to talk to the women military members in behind the glass about our trip. This part was relatively painless, a little more intense than the questioning at any of the other borders, but still not too hard. After we were all cleared, we were sent through the last line, to have our passports checked for stamps and to get our bags back. As we waited in line, we became aware of the room to our left, packed with people waiting around. Cait turned to me and said, “Notice anything about the people next to us?” Every person in the line next to us was an Arab. Every one. We sighed, secretly thankful to be carrying American passports to avoid hours more at the border. I walked up to the woman at the counter and handed over my passport at which point she looked at me and said, “Yasmeen? You need to go in that line,” and indicated to the area with all the people waiting around next to us. She asked if my friends were traveling with me, and when they answered in the affirmative she said that they should go with me. So for the next hour or so we waited with all the other Arabs going through the border. There was a lot of yelling going on from both sides, and there seemed to be an infinite amount of miscommunication. The guards would yell out names like, “Ahmed”, “Amjad” and “Muhammad” and everyone would start to laugh as eight men would all stand up, questioning exactly which of them they were calling. It was really a chaotic situation, and the air in the room was obviously a bit tense. After what seemed like days, our bags were all opened and searched, and the guards had everyone dump everything on their person onto a table to be swabbed for explosives. After being deemed safe, we were allowed to get our bags back and finally leave the border. My friends have said they were glad to be traveling with me, because if they weren’t then they would never know what all the Arabs that try to get through the border have to go through every day. (They were the only white people that had been stopped, and it seems that they were only stopped because they were traveling with me.) After the four hour, relatively demeaning escapade, I was probably ten times more thankful just to have them with me.
We stayed at a hostel in the old city, right inside Jaffa gate. The fun thing about Jerusalem was the opportunity to see all the famous sites that we had heard about throughout our lives – the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, the Tower of David, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, etc. I mean the city is really packed wall to wall with ancient and spiritual places. The Muslim and Jewish holy sites were the most fun to see; everyone is very respectful, and you can definitely feel the intensity in the air. What’s sad and disappointing is that everyone is so silent at the other sites that the moment they get to a Christian holy site, all hell seems to break loose. Seriously, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was a shit show. Jam packed with tourists, yelling, running around and crowding everything. It was disappointing for us to have so little opportunity for reflection in such a chaotic environment. We ended up trying to explore the smaller, less touristed churches around the city, which proved to be rewarding – there are a plethora to find, each with their own individual history.

[The day before Christmas eve we went to mass at the Notre Dame center just outside the walls of the Old City. All four of us went, me, Nick, Yas, and Del. The homily was standard and great, a solid reminder of the meaning of Christmas, and afterwards some of the Filipina women who are part of the congregation there had a supper for everyone downstairs. The mass was well-attended but not packed, despite it being Jerusalem two days before Christmas. I went to confession afterwards and while I was waiting, talked to a Filipina woman who works in Jerusalem at St. George’s Hospice which I think is now a place that clergy lives or a sort of hotel, I’m not sure, but she was there working and her two-year old was back at home in the Philippines. She had only been there a few months and it was her first time being away from her son and family at Christmas, and it just made me really sad. When I went downstairs to meet my friends at the potluck, the women were so warm and happy to share the food they had made and talk to us, and it made me hopeful to think that the woman I had met upstairs waiting for confession had a group of people like that to support her.]

Christmas evening we slowly began to make our way from the old city to Bethlehem, in the West Bank, for midnight mass. We had quite an experience with a bus driver in the new city: we got onto his bus, paid, realized it wasn’t going to the check point, and got right off. He stopped the bus and ushered us back in, wanting to help us, and when he realized he couldn’t he offered to give us our money back. So Del and I got back onto the bus, said thanks for trying to help but we will just take our money back and be on our way. At this point the bus driver asked if we were Jewish, and after I answered that we weren’t we were just trying to get to Christmas mass, he turned his head away and shooed us of the bus with his hand. Well then. Needless to say, we were a bit stunned and it took us a few seconds after stepping off the bus to realize what had happened. But Cait tried to keep everyone in the forgiving Christmas spirit, so we just walked away and found a miracle shuttle (we named it such because we had no idea what we were doing and the shuttle just appeared out of nowhere) to take us to the check point.

It took us a couple moments after we got to the checkpoint to realize what it was. We just hadn’t really thought it through ahead of time, but we ended up being rushed through a metal detector and some razor wire, and the suddenly the gigantic Wall was directly in front of us. It was actually quite startling to realize we were going to pass through it. On the Israeli side of the wall, just before you crossed into Palestine, a gigantic banner the height of the wall itself was hanging next to the guard tower, with the words “Peace Be With You” in English, Hebrew, and Arabic on it, hung by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism just behind the chain linked fence. The fact that it was hanging there stunned us, and I think will all considered it a bit ironic. After crossing through the wall itself we were on the Palestinian side, and when you look up you can see, from the ground to fifteen feet high, that its decorated with spray paint, tagging and urban art expressing the feelings of the people on this side of the wall. It made each of us quite emotional– I felt as if I was really privileged to see it, because no one sees photos of this side of the wall and everything it has on it. There were huge paintings, seemingly professional and very poignant, and then there were just words written with a fifteen-cent spray paint can from the local grocer. I only took a photo of the very first thing I saw; I realized in seconds that I would never be able to photograph everything in the dark and being swept down the ramp by everyone else wanting to go to mass. As soon as we reached the road, we heard prices and propositions for rides all being called out in Arabic, and we piled into a taxi headed for the church. After less than a minute on the road, we all just sort of looked at each other and smiled, finally feeling comfortable again. Here we knew what we were doing – we could communicate with the driver, we understood the social circumstance we were in and could navigate the cultural minefield. We had felt so lost in Jerusalem for the last couple days, and especially wandering around all evening trying to get to the West Bank that we all felt relieved to be back in our comfort zone.

The main square in Bethlehem on which the Church of the Nativity sits was insane. There were people everywhere, a huge stage with some Spanish singer belting out her own pop tunes on it, lights, and balloons, and the entire place could have been classified as total mayhem. It took us a few hours to even figure out how to get into the church, and how to try to enter without tickets to mass. We crammed into line with the other 20 bagillion people trying to get into the church, and after an hour or so Nick tried to talk the guard into letting us in, and failed miserably. Boys. When will they learn to just let girls take care of some of these things? Cait and I managed to speak with another guard, convince him that we just wanted to hear mass from the grotto, and sure enough we got through the security line and made our way to the chapel under the church. We stayed long enough to see the procession and hear some of the music before mass began, but there were so many people, and we kept being told to do all different things and go to different places, and all we could here were screeching sneakers and people talking among themselves and taking photos of the grotto behind us. A little after midnight, sad and resigned to the negativity of the last six hours in general, we decided to just leave before it got any worse. As we left the main square, I noticed this guy selling really obnoxious large party hats that resembled old dunce caps covered in wrapping paper and tinsel. We were all feeling really down and out, so I bought four of the hats, and made a rule that as long as it was still Christmas, we had to wear our hats. And sure enough, that’s exactly what we did. Each of us solemnly put on the hats and decided that we were going to have fun for the next 24 hours, because it was Christmas, and that’s the way it should be. We wore them into a taxi, through the wall and the Israeli check point (we insisted on keeping them on when we went through the metal detectors) [where we wandered around for a good five or ten minutes because we couldn’t find the door or figure out which way to go—it was like the end of the Wizard of Oz where the Wizard is speaking and the voice is coming from a PA system but no one can figure out where he actually is, or find any people around…it was like a bad dream, with armed soldiers on catwalks above us, pacing back and forth. But we kept our hats on, back through the checkpoint and on the bus back to the old city.]

On Christmas morning we got up early and with our backpacks, Christmas hats and all, we trekked into the new city for bagels for breakfast. As we left the old city, a number of tourists took our photo, and an older woman who was not paying attention to her tour guide smiled at us, and whispered “Merry Christmas!” (The aim of the hats morphed into spreading Christmas cheer.) In the new city, however, no one seemed to even think we were funny, which was odd, because we looked completely ridiculous, and no one wished us Merry Christmas!! So we ate our bagels on a park bench and walked to East Jerusalem, where everyone thought we were funny, and we got an average of one “Merry Christmas!” every thirty seconds. Maybe our sense of humor had just been adjusted to fit the culture we had been living in, but we decided that we would get a hostel in the Arab part of Jerusalem if we ever came back. At the Israeli side of the border crossing, a woman guard looked at Cait, obviously baffled, and asked, “Is it your birthday?” Cait, totally deadpan, answered, “No, it’s JESUS’S birthday.” Definitely the best moment of the trip.


It’s me again, and I’m picking up where Yasmeen ends, on our way back to Jordan after clearing the Israeli border. After the shock and sadness that was the wall on Christmas Eve, and just the general bad taste left in our mouths, we were ready to come home to Amman and get the heck out of what’s kind of like a very holy, old, and just strange metro New Jersey-Northampton-Europe hybrid (New City, Jerusalem). We arrived back in town at about 4pm. Delmar and I got to his apartment at 4:30. We got to Safeway at about 5, did our shopping, slaved away in the kitchen, killed two cockroaches, got on with it, and had Christmas Dinner on the table at 8:40! Delmar Moses II chose the menu. A note about Del: Del hails from a small town in Georgia that in fact consumes more Coke per capita than any other town in the world. We made cornbread, stuffing with chicken, macaroni and cheese, deviled eggs, and fruit salad.

It was so nice to sit down with Nick, Yasmeen, Del, and Anmar and have some semblance of familiarity and tradition to our Christmas. It was also nice to stop for a minute. I would not have wanted to spend the holiday any other way with any other people aside from my family. It was just awesome to throw my backpack down knowing I wouldn’t open it again until I was in India, cook like a madman, and just have a little feast with the friends I just trekked around the Middle East and spent the semester with here.

This marks THE END of “WANDERLUST PART I: Caitlin’s Christmas Vacation,”
Please stay tuned for “WANDERLUST PART II: Hindustan & Pakistan”


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