I’ve always felt incredibly uncomfortable when someone I don’t know is holding my passport. Now imagine that, but now the guy holding your passport has a machine gun slung over his shoulder! That is how it felt crossing the border from Jordan to Israel!
We met Maher at our hotel gate at 8am this morning, and hopped in the car to drive to the Sheik Al Hussein border crossing in northern Jordan. It was about an hour and a half drive, which was really interesting because we drove through little towns that we wouldn’t have otherwise seen. It really gave a sense of the “developing” side of Jordan. In many ways, Jordan seems quite developed, but driving through local neighbourhoods and seeing all sorts of refugee tents was a reminder that Jordan is still a developing country, and is suffering immensely from the refugee problem in the region. Ra’ed said that some of the tents we were seeing were not refugees at all, but “bedouins in transition”, who are slowly transitioning into a more modern, stationary lifestyle.
As we neared the border, we came across a checkpoint. There were several Jordanian soldiers standing around a military vehicle, all sporting machine guns over their shoulders. Maher handed them our passports, and they had us pull over to the side of the road. Apparently Jordanians need a special permit to cross over to the Israel side of the border, and it is extremely difficult to come by. The checkpoint guys called up a special car to drive us down through the border, since Maher wasn’t allowed to cross. We said a quick goodbye before hopping into the new car and heading down towards the border.
It was quite a complicated crossing. Our driver made all sorts of different stops, and we were questioned on several different occasions. Everyone wanted to know if we had any friends in Israel, and if anyone in Jordan had asked us to deliver anything across the border. They were particularly interested in why we were coming into Israel from Jordan, apparently not sure why anyone would want to visit their neighbouring country. After some more checkpoints, we drove across the bridge, which felt pretty cool, but looked less than impressive. On the other side, someone came and let us through, leading us to a new building.
Inside the building was what looked like airport security. They put our bags through, again asking if we were bring anything across for anyone, and then proceeded to open up our bags and rifle through them. I cannot explain to you how hard it was getting my suitcase closed this morning, so when I saw them unzip it and watched it pop open, I immediately regretted bringing such a small carry-on bag. They looked through everything, double checking with different sticks and rods to make sure everything was okay to bring into the country. The emptied out my backpack and put it through the security machine again, apparently needing to be sure. Once our bags were approved, we went on to the actual customs area. The customs agents asked us all sorts of questions, from the name of my grandfather on my dad’s side, to a list of all the arab countries I’ve ever visited. After what seemed like forever, she let us through. We requested that she stamp pieces of paper rather than our passports with the Israeli visa, because it is still difficult to travel through some Arab countries with an Israeli stamp, and we didn’t want to take any chances.
On the other side, there was a cute little sign welcoming us to Israel, and I got in a lot of trouble for trying to take a picture of it! I thought we were through the border already, but apparently it was not allowed, as I learned when a woman barked at me threateningly to put my camera away.
We didn’t know who we were meeting on the other side, and it turned out there was no one there waiting for us. We were made to wait outside the gate, but had no idea who we were waiting for and who we could call. Eventually, Dad called the travel agent as well as Alaa, our contact from Jordan. While he was on the phone with Alaa, a car pulled up with a sign in the window saying “Sherlock Family”. It was a huge relief.
We met our guide for Israel, a Christian Palestinian named Abraham. Our first stop was Nazareth, and while we drove through the Jordan Valley to get there, he started filling us in on some history. It’s all a bit jumbled and confusing, especially for something who doesn’t know the Bible very well, but once Abraham slowed down a little bit I was able to follow more.
When we got to Nazareth, we stopped at “Mary’s Well”, where Mary is said to have been getting water when the angel Gabriel appeared to tell her that she would carry the son of God. There was a little Greek Orthodox church build overtop of it, and it was filled with Russian tourists singing the most beautiful song. It was really cool to be standing there hearing the music and taking it all in.
Next, we went to the Catholic Church of the Annunciation, where it is thought that Mary ran after first seeing Gabriel. Apparently he appeared to her again, and this time she listened and learned that she would carry the son of God. That’s one explanation for the two churches. The other explanation is that the Catholics and the Greek Orthodox have never been great friends, and they both wanted to mark the spot of the Annunciation, so they both went and claimed some land and built some churches (a theme that is quite prevalent in the Holy Land, apparently).
As we were leaving Nazareth, we mentioned to Abraham that we would like to find some Baklava, so he brought us to a little bakery that is apparently famous for the stuff. We got four each to try, and I’ve never tasted baklava so good! It was so fresh and sweet and perfect – I could eat it all day for the rest of my life!
On our way to Tiberias, we stopped in Cana, where Jesus supposedly performed the miracle of turning water to wine. We went in and saw another church that they built to celebrate the occasion, and tried some of the wine that they still make in the region. It was incredibly sweet, and pretty hard to drink to be honest, but it was pretty cool considering the circumstances.
For lunch we went to a fish restaurant in Tiberias where we ate St. Peter’s Fish. The story goes that Jesus was crossing a bridge but had no money to pay St. Peter for his crossing. He told Peter to catch a fish in the lake, and that inside it he would find payment. Peter caught the fish and found a coin in its mouth. In reality, it’s Tilapia, and it was delicious!
After lunch, we went across the lake to visit three churches. They all sort of jumble together at this point, but I think the second one was where Jesus performed the miracle of “Feeding the Multitude” where he turned five loaves of bread and two fish into enough for everyone to eat. The last church was representing the spot where, after Jesus died, his disciples where fishing. They returned empty handed in the morning, and saw the figure of Jesus on a rock, who told them to go back out and fish again. This time they had success, and together they all ate on a rock. The rock was still there, and the church was displaying it as an alter.
The Sea of Galilee, also called Lake Tiberius, is where Jesus performed most of his miracles, including walking on water.
That was our last stop, so once we were done we drove back to Tiberius and checked in to the Scotts hotel, which used to be a Scottish Hospital in Tiberius when Israel was a British colony.
Israel has a very different feel from Jordan. I was warned that people would be different in Israel, and it’s very apparent that they are. It’s not that they’re unfriendly, but rather they’re not friendly. There’s a sort of lack of joy, if that makes sense, and people seem to keep to themselves. Everyone seems to be in it for themselves, and there’s no sort of sharing involved. It is understandable, I guess, considering the political situation of the country and the region. I imagine it would be difficult to be overly joyful as a Palestinian Christian showing people places that he only has access to with a guiding permit. Resentment is a strong word, but I do sense a little bit of what feels somewhat like resentment towards us, which I think makes sense. Palestinians here are arbitrarily kept from certain places because of who they are, while foreigners can come and see whatever they like.