Friday, December 05, 2008

Riyadh to Jerusalem - a Travelogue

This was written yesterday while I was on the road.  I didn't get a chance to post it until today, though, due to my laptop's battery crashing.  Enjoy!  I have all sorts of fun things to talk about in Jerusalem, and I've not even been here 24 hours yet.  I'll be back with you soon with more updates.

I'm not sure when I'll find a wireless network in order to post this, but I might as well keep a log of my travel adventures today.  I'm flying from Riyadh to Amman, Jordan, and from there I have a few options for how I will get to Jerusalem.  I have a feeling that at least one will not work, so today will require flexibility, creativity, and a good sense of humor.  More sleep last night would have helped, as well.  

It's 8.30 AM on the first day of Eid, and I'm sitting at my gate in the international terminal at the Riyadh airport.  I have an hour and a half left until my flight leaves, but I'm glad I got here when I did - the place is packed, as the entire city empties out over the nine-day holiday.  When I got here at 7.45, there was a line about 200 meters long on the sidewalk outside, waiting to get through the doors.  I panicked, but I then realized that every single person in it had a cart with boxed-up luggage, and they all appeared to be South Asian of one flavor or another.  Thank God I'm not flying Pakistan International Airlines today!  I managed to hop in front of them, get my boarding pass, and breeze through security and passport control in record time.  Right now I'm surrounded by older African men, probably headed home to Sudan or Somalia - there's a flight before mine from this gate, but I'm not sure of its destination.  At the next gate over is the 9.15 flight to Beirut.  It's quite a contrast - you can always pick out Beirutis wherever you travel in the Middle East, because their clothing is more fabulous, their hair is more perfect, and their attitude is more cosmopolitan than everyone around them (and they are very conscious of this fact).  I got a bit of a shock at first to see so many women not wearing abayas.  I'm not sure what the protocol is on when you can drop the abaya as you're leaving the Kingdom.  Is it at the flight gate?  Once you've taken off?  Once you cross into another country's air space?  I think I'll wait and watch the Jordanian women on my flight - following the Beirutis' lead in the airport would probably get me into trouble.  

I will say that this is the first time I've gone out in Riyadh on personal travel without a veil over my hair; I just didn't want to deal with it today.  I guess in an airport it's more acceptable than if I were wandering around a mall downtown (although even there most American women won't cover their hair).  I can't wait to wander around Jerusalem and Addis in just jeans and a sweatshirt, without the obnoxious layers of black cloth enveloping me.  It's hard to believe I've been here for three months...  If Jerusalem ends up being a shock to me, I can only imagine how strange things will look in the States when I go back in April.

Okay, a cute little girl, maybe two years old, just came over and tried to type on my laptop.  I'm not sure where her parents are and why she's running around by herself, but she says hello to you all from Riyadh!

5.45 PM, Ben Yahuda street, Jerusalem

I made it from my front door to this shawarma stand in ten hours - this must be something of a record!  (To be fair, I'm not sure how much competition there is on the Riyadh-Jerusalem route.)  I manage to take the easiest route here - hiring a car to take me to the border crossing nearest Amman, which empties into the West Bank, 45 minutes away from Jerusalem.  The potential wrinkle was that the border closes at 2.30 PM - if my flight were delayed, if I had trouble finding a car, or if there were traffic problems, then I would have gone to the northern border crossing, two and a half hours away, or gone back to the airport to wait for the 9 PM flight to Tel Aviv.  Luckily, everything worked out okay.  Travel in the Middle East is never easy, and getting from anywhere into Israel is even harder.  At this particular crossing, travellers are dropped off at the Jordanian exit control, get their passports stamped, and then file onto a bus that will ferry them across the border.  However, travellers have to wait until the bus fills up, because why make the trip with half a load?  My bus was fillled with European backpackers, the ubiquitous Japanese tourist group, and Palestinians who go back and forth every day to work or to visit family.  When our creaking bus finally filled, we set off across the four-kilometer no man's land and finally reached checkpoints where the warning signs were in Hebrew first, not Arabic.  (An aside: we did technically cross the Jordan River in this process, although I would call it more of the Jordan Drainage Ditch, or the Jordan Stagnant Puddle.  The Japanese tourists were heartbroken when they realized how unimpressive it is.)  

Once you go through the numerous Israeli checkpoints, security screenings, and interrogations, you collect your bags and arrange for transportation to wherever you want to go.  I caught a minibus to Jerusalem, and it dropped me off just outside the Old City an hour later.  Of course, we had to go through one more checkpoint when we left the West Bank and headed into Jerusalem proper; I was the only person on the bus who wasn't pulled out to be patted down or interrogated.  (Sometimes, an American passport is a really, really useful thing.)  The Palestinians evidently all thought I was a Jordanian, and they couldn't figure out why I wasn't searched too.  At least they laughed about it, once I explained.  The short drive was pretty uneventful, and the other passengers were very quiet during the trip.  I guess they're used to seeing the "DANGER: MINES" signs in the Jordan River valley, relics that predate the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, and to driving underneath Ma'ale Adumim, one of the largest settlements in the West Bank, perched atop the hills east of Jerusalem.

So, here I sit at the big pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, waiting for my friend to get off work.  I'll write in a few days, probably while I'm waiting on my plane to Addis Ababa.  Cheers!

I forgot - the appropriate time to unveil and de-abaya when leaving the Kingdom is the moment you set foot on the plane.  I got a physical shock when I looked around right before takeoff and saw only three veiled women on the entire flight.  


  1. I would be really nervous trying to go cross into Israel by myself without a clear plan for how it was going to work out. Go you, and glad you made it back safely.