Israel & Palestine. You don’t need to be paranoid to live here but it helps!
23 rd April to 7 th May 2006
Leaving Egypt behind us, we crossed the 300m or so of “no man’s land” and pulled up at the heavy weight yellow steel barrier, baring our way, with one of those cheese shaped hydraulic barriers in the road below. This is one border that you couldn’t cross in a “James Bond in a hurry sort of a way!” We stopped! But instead of Israelis, we were approached by an out of breath member of the Egyptian tourist police who had just woken up to the fact that some tourists had just crossed the border without his assistance. I suppose it was his job to guide us through the chaos that passes for Egyptian border formalities and of course he had arrived too late. It also slipped my mind that we still had our Egyptian number plates.
Now for one of the most paranoid countries in the world after America that is. Once the Egyptian had gone we were approached by some Israelis. The border appeared to be entirely manned by youngsters, (mid to late twenties) in casual dress, cargo trousers and polo tops, sun glasses, the bigger the better and every body was armed with a pistol and some with M16 assault riffles. It was as if we’d crossed the border and were now some how on the set of the latest Tom Cruise Mission Impossible movie! We had been for warned and were prepared for a lengthy interrogation and strip down of the Grommet. But some how it never really happened, a lot of questions about where were we from, what had we seen, what did we do, what was the reason for our visit, what was the relationship between us, etc, etc. They were particularly confused by the fact that we were married but had different surnames, I was still a Whorlow and Blanca a Ramos Gonzalez, we explained that the Spanish don’t change their surname, so as to pass on one name from each parent to their children. They still weren’t convinced, but fortunately we had our marriage certificate with us for just such a moment as this. After this, everything went very smoothly indeed, perhaps it was because we had got married in New Orleans, who knows! No searches, just a quick look and we could go. Amazing we were expecting to waste a day crossing the two borders but in an hour and a half we were heading up the coast to Eilat.
We were now in the most southerly tip of Israel and bordered by three mighty Arab nations, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. We needed to shop after our days by the beach and check out the situation with the ferry at an internet cafe. Eilat is the highly overrated duty free hedonistic playground for Israelis and package tourists alike, after so many Islamic countries to be suddenly surrounded by all these semi naked people, we were in shock! It was as if we had been transported back to a seventies Europe with platform shoes, mini skirts, bikini tops, knee high boots and flowing floral prints and any opportunity to display as much flesh as possible before it became obscene! Now this is ok if you are young and “fit” but for many Israeli women, rather than grow old gracefully, they have opted for the faded “porn star” look, too tight, cut too low and way too much make up……..!
A visit to the local tourist info office provided us with a small collection of maps and guides for all the places in Israel that we wanted to see at that contrary to the signage and our guide book is was in fact quite acceptable to camp on the beach. Well apart from some sleazy looking hostels in town and the $100 plus a night hotels, the beach is really the only other alternative. We headed back in the direction of the border and the beach and despite the fact that it is a nature reserve there were quite a few tents about. I stopped next to some bikers to get some confirmation that it was ok to camp and about security issues on the beach, but I guess if you are the Israeli chapter of the “Hell’s Angels” security is the least of your worries! We found a spot off the road above the beach just before the Princess Hotel and Princess beach which although being a public beach has the added luxury of toilets and a shower obviously for the hotel guests but it suited us fine, was free and very clean.
As our “spot” was a little exposed and windy we attached the two sides to our awning for only the second time in the last eighteen months, so we had a little bit of shelter and some privacy. Israel is actually a lot like Spain, park on your own in the middle of nowhere and you are immediately surrounded by loud groups of locals partying, courting, camping and cooking………no peace for the wicked!
Now as we are still in the Red Sea the snorkelling is great and despite this area being a Nature Reserve, is not quite up to the standard of the Sinai and Ras Mohammed but we still managed to see an amazing array of fish and corals including my favourites the beautiful but poisonous Lion Fish. I actually find it quite incredible that there is anything too see there at all, even though there were signs every where in English, Hebrew and even Russian requesting, people obey the park rules and use the designated areas to enter the water and don’t walk on the corals, there were people walking all over the corals and why is it that every family that stops at the beach has to throw stones in to the sea! I know the beach isn’t that impressive and bares a close resemblance to a building site but beyond the water’s edge is an incredible world of colour and creatures and all you require to see it is a mask.
One afternoon a group of young orthodox Jews arrived from Jerusalem for a swim and a look, after a while I decided to lend them our masks and snorkels so they could get a better look at the reef and the fish and see what they where missing. They were so enthralled that they remained snorkelling well after it was dark. They were very excited and thanked us very much. Following on from this success I lent the masks and snorkels to an orthodox Jewish family the next day with similar results. We were even considering opening a hire shop or starting a club “The Wailing Wall Divers!”
We’d only been at the beach a couple of days and were relaxing one evening, when we received a text from the ‘Accountants’ to say that there had been three bombs in Dahab, a number of people had been killed and many injured. Then suddenly all hell broke loose, the border nearby had been closed for security reasons and streams of police cars, military vehicles and scores of ambulances, sirens wailing and lights flashing in preparation to receive the wounded, (Dahab is quite a popular destination with Israelis since it is just down the coast and one’s shekels go a lot further in Egypt!)
While all this was going on down at the border just off shore an Israeli Navy gun boat patrolled carefully scanning the water with its powerful search light. Then just across the bay either the Jordanians or the Saudis decided to try out their guns and began firing star shells and salvos of red tracer across the bay. Had we not received the text it would have been hard not to imagine that World War 3 had begun or George Bush had made yet another stupid move in the Middle East. In the morning we spoke to a couple of guys camping near by and got a better idea of what had happened. It was also incredible to think that had Blanca’s passport not been so close to the six month expiry zone we could have been right there!
A day or so latter Tom, Jan and a friend of theirs from South Africa joined us on the beach for a night, it was great to see them again and hear their news and learn of their ever changing plans…………
So if there is anyone out there who wants a Toyota Landcruiser, expedition prepared, with Botswana plates, I know of a good example for sale and currently in a container heading for South Africa.
Eventually we had to pack away the masks and snorkels and leave the beach, it was hard to go, each dip in the sea would reveal new and exciting fish it was a magic land and the more time I spent in the water the more my ears had become accustomed to the pressure. So long after our intended departure date we headed for the Dead Sea, no chance of snorkelling there…….!
Leaving the coast and heading inland the temperatures start to climb as we start to drop, all around the desert landscape seems to be gasping for water and then you chance upon a small forest of palm trees, but this is no oasis it’s a man made plantation with the trees in neat orderly rows and watered artificially. Then there are the factory farms for beef, lamb, dairy and all manner of fruits and vegetables, all this in a land that would kill you, sucking you dry leaving you looking like an old prune in a matter of days without water. We were descending all the time although until the last moment you don’t really realise it, we were now at the lowest point on the Earth at almost 400m below sea level.
On first sight the Dead Sea is a little disappointing, with a collection of vast holding ponds and an industrial landscape of a rusting magnesium extraction plant belching fumes but this eventually gives way to the Dead Sea proper and the Dead Sea resorts with their Hilton style hotels and the people bobbing around like corks just of the beach, didn’t really look like a place where we could beach camp!
We decided to check out the hill top ruins of Masada in the morning but first we needed to find a camping spot in the bush. I’d spotted a track leading off the road to the right, dropping down to a dry river bed and out of site from the road. After setting up camp I grabbed the cameras and went of to explore. I was just on my way up the bank to try and glimpse the Dead Sea when I heard a vehicle, looking up and seeing a whole string of aerials go by, “Oh Dear” I thought this doesn’t look good I’d better head back to the Spaniard and see what’s up! I arrived just in time to see a guy in army fatigues, gun at the ready informing a “rabbit eyed” Blanca that we were in a restricted area and that I had just crossed the border and been strolling around in Jordan. Blanca was expecting to be shot! Still we avoided an international incident explained that we were tourists, and that the only signs that we were aware of were those warning of Danger Deep Water! We were let off and the soldier returned to his vehicle to watch us pack and go. Back on the road there were no signs warning about the border but a little further along and slightly more worrying there were signs saying “Danger Mines!” The solider had advised that we could camp where ever we liked on the left hand side of the road, so sizing the first opportunity I headed up a wide dry river bed and found a level sandy spot about 3km from the road. Figuring that we should be far enough away so as not to be a threat to national security I set up camp and pretty soon had a fire and some jacket potatoes on the go. All this time the sky overhead was getting darker and darker and then I felt a few spots of rain. We were in the worst place and all the talk was of flash floods and then it was over and the sky cleared to form a perfect evening.
The next morning bright and early we popped up the road to check out the plateau top ruins of the ancient fortified settlement of Masada. It is clamed that the in the time of the “First Revolt” the Jews occupied this hilltop settlement and held out for a while against the Romans but when defeat appeared inevitable, rather than face surrender, slaughter and slavery the people chose to jump “lemming” like to their deaths. It was unfortunate that our arrival coincided with that of 20 or so coaches full of tourists so we left for a dip in the Dead Sea instead.
The little beach resort of Ein Gedi was busy but not that busy, so we quickly donned our cosies and headed for the water. The water was surprisingly blue, clear and felt slightly oily to the touch and was not quite what I was expecting. All around people were floating about from milk white Russians to the dark skinned Arabs, whose women folk bathed fully covered. I’ve even seen Muslim women at Ras Mohammed, Egypt, snorkelling in the chador which covers the woman from head to foot and the Orthodox Jewish women aren’t much better. Anyway on entering the water it’s as if ones body has suddenly transformed to one made of polystyrene and it is the strangest of sensations, a bit like free falling without the jumping out of the plane and falling bit! All attempts to swim properly are instantly transformed in to a slap stick comedy routine. So after a while you learn not to fight it and just to lay back relax and float and bob about like every body else. It was only when I got some of the water in my eye that I under stood why vast stretches of the coast are closed to swimming. My eye felt like a lab rabbit on a cosmetics test, burning as if on fire, fortunately I was able to stagger blindly to a nearby shower and flush the pain away. It was good to know that the showers were so close by, as I’d hate to think what all that salt would do….! Skin peel anyone?
After the Dead Sea swim, poor old Grommet was back in hill climbing mode and wheezing his way up the 400m climb to sea level. Blanca had chosen a scenic route to Jerusalem avoiding the motorway and taking in the Ein Feshka reserve and some of the Palestinian territories along the way. The route through the National Park was “interesting” to say the least and I wasn’t very happy with the possible prospect of “breaking” Grommet in the final stages of the trip, so much so that I even refused to let Blanca walk some of the more dangerous accents and descents. My reasoning was this; if you chose a high adrenaline route then we should at least enjoy it together! Well the park wasn’t very big and before we new it the “fun” was over and we were back on asphalt. It wasn’t difficult to tell that we were now in Palestinian territory, the road was in a poor state, there were now little shanty towns and informal settlements and scruffy looking children with small herds of goats wandering the hills which so typifies the third world. Some of these kids held out their hands as we drove by and shouted something in Arabic that I’m quite sure wasn’t welcome to the Palestinian Territories! Every now and again you pass by an Israeli settlement in this predominantly Palestinian area, they aren’t very difficult to spot, there the clean, tidy, uniform, new “German” style housing estates with the new cars behind the high wire fences, razor wire and watch towers and all the kids are in school and not grazing domesticated animals on the neat and tidy lawns.
We stopped just outside Jerusalem in a long line of traffic waiting to pass a check point, and as usual when in these situations there were all the usual questions were are you from? etc, etc, and welcome to Jerusalem plus a lot more that we didn’t understand because they were in Arabic but all apparently friendly and positive. We were a little intrigued when a passer by shouted “why aren’t you at the Jewish check point,” I took this to be a racist remark and replied “because I’m not Jewish!” To me a check point was just a check point regardless of race, religion, etc. The soldiers at the checkpoint didn’t seem too bothered that we were there and let us pass. With our map from tourist information in Eilat, the route to our hostel peered pretty straight forward except for the slight missing detail “The Wall.” Yet another “German” parallel going on, now there is an enormous Berlin style wall that separates the Palestinians from the Israelis and now us from our hostel! After following the wall for some considerable time it was becoming apparent that, apart from some kind of Steve McQueen’s “Great Escape” manoeuvre with the Grommet flying over the wall, getting to the other side was going to be a difficult task! Eventually we arrived at what appeared to be a huge green cage, similar to the ones you find in outdated zoo with some poor old lion in pacing back and forth, I dispatched Blanca to investigate. Blanca entered the “cage” and after some complicated communication with a bomb proof kiosk, was informed that we had just crossed through some of the most dangerous territory in the whole country and were extremely lucky to be still alive! Funny but everybody had seemed extremely friendly and welcoming and not a gunman or bomber in site. Oh, and the kiosk said that in order to cross to the “other side” we must go back the way we came to the first check point and if we “survive” explain to them were we want to go and they would show us the way. So we re-ran the gauntlet through the smiling welcoming and now confused people to join the queue of vehicles trying to exit through the check point. Eventually after a lot of explaining we were shown to a side road and allowed in to the Israeli side of the wall.
I would have liked to stay on the Palestinian side of the wall and found out a bit more about life and what goes on there but unfortunately our guide didn’t list any hostels there and time was pressing.
I have to say that to their credit, that the Israelis have achieved an incredible amount in the 58 years since the formation of the state of Israel and crossing the wall is like going from the second/third world to Europe! I would be interested to see how much money has been invested to create this miniature copy of Germany in the Middle East. I suppose it also helps that the whole population of Israel is intent on the growth and success of that nation and not just to line the pockets of the few. Plus it helps being an unofficial colony of the United States. After passing through a very modern city (Israeli side) we arrived at “Hostel Row” in East Jerusalem and the Palm Hostel and just across the street from the Damascus Gate and entry to the Old City. Yes, for only the second time on the whole of our trip we are going to have to for go our bead in Grommet and pay to sleep some where else. I wasn’t that happy to leave poor Grommet in the secure parking across the road but the attendants were over the moon to have something this unusual in their yard. The Palm Hostel run by some Arab guys was clean and tidy with hot showers, free internet, tea and coffee and Paul a Korean Pastor served free Korean rice and sauce for anyone who wanted it twice a day. Hence the place had a large contingent of Korean and Japanese who are renowned for finding the cheapest places with the best deals, oh, along with the Spaniard that is! Israel is not cheap along with its European facade and European style comes a European price tag so all these “free” things help a lot with the budget. The free internet was a real bonus as internet cafés are quite rare, expensive and hard to find but they are fast! Just below the hostel is a busy little Arab area that is just buzzing with life and appears to have escaped the sterilisation of other areas. Here I was able to get some powdered milk at last, seems to be a trend poor people powdered milk, rich people fresh milk or coffee whitener, I guess I’ve just got used to making enough milk for my cereal and two coffee’s each day and Blanca doesn’t take milk.
Now the old walled town of Jerusalem, we entered via the Damascus Gate and straight in to the Arab Quarter with its maze of narrow streets full of shops selling all manner of junk from China to shops selling veg, sweets, chadors along with hundreds of curio shops selling the same tourist rubbish that you can buy any where in the world but here with a slightly more religious bent. We weaved our way through the labyrinth, past hustlers, old crones selling vine leaves, groups of over weight American and European tourists or were they suicide bombers pretending to be tourists we didn’t wait to find out. We passed a fight developing between tour guides and entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Just inside the door way is a large flat stone on which it is alleged the body of Christ was laid and dressed after his time on the cross, its not in the best of spots as its difficult to pass by without stepping on some of the faithful prostrate on the floor, kissing, touching, praying at the stone. “I say follow the gourd or is it the sandal?” We left a small group of nuns lying on the floor and moved on to the chapel built on the alleged spot where the cross was supposed to have been, but found it much more interesting to watch the two huge holly bouncers keeping the faithful in line and ushering them in four at a time from the very long queue. We left the ensuing chaos as a group of Indians, unaware of the religious modus operandi, tried to jump the queue, I guess they will go straight to hell for that! And headed for the crypt were Christ was supposed to have been buried before he rolled away the stone and rose from the dead. Not much to see apart from a large rock cave protected by “holy graffiti” covered screens. We left making our way through the waves of Christians, etc on their Holy Land Tours, seeing these groups you can’t fail to see that Christianity and Jerusalem attracts far more than its fair share of weirdoes and my mind was constantly reminded of Monty Pythons “The Life of Brian,” I’m sorry but surround me with religious nutters and I just can’t help it! And here the people you see is far stranger than even the Python team could dream up……..
Next stop on our old town tour was the fabulous Dome of the Rock mosque where Mohammed made his ascent to heaven, and for the Christians, the place where Abraham was about to sacrifice one of his sons when God saved the day and told him that maybe a goat was better, unless you are a goat that is! We could see the mosque in front of us but the problem was we were at the wrong gate, this was for Muslims only, according to the battle prepared police baring our entry, you must use the Jewish gate. There we go again but I’m no more Jewish than I am Muslim! “Where are you from?” “England and Spain” then began the usual diatribe about football teams, it always seems a sad reflection that the extent of the knowledge of our two countries resides with Manchester United or Arsenal, Madrid or Barcelona, still its not only here, it’s the world over! We turned and wandered away with our armed guard following close behind. To access the mosque, first we had to pass a barrier with metal detector and x-ray, this allowed us access to the Wailing Wall. Yet another strange place here Jewish men and women segregated by a barrier stand nodding back and forth in prayer. We then had to pass through yet another barrier with yet another metal detector and x-ray and we not even allowed in to the mosque. We’ve passed through so many detectors that we now glow in the dark. The Dome of the Rock is simply breath taking, situated in a large open courtyard with its white marble walls, exotic tile work and gold dome, stunning! Since we weren’t allowed inside, we took a stroll through the garden of olive trees, rubbish and builders rubble to the old wall and from here we could catch a good glimpse of the Russian Orthodox Church looking slightly out of place on the hillside opposite with its golden onion shaped minarets. We left the area through the gate were we had previously been bared entry….All very strange!
I have to say that being surrounded by so many heavily armed police and military, rather than being reassuring, is actually quite unnerving. I felt more at risk from some spotty youth with girlfriend trouble firing off a clip or two from his M16 than an over weight looking Arab exploding next to me. I guess you have to live here! But I’ve lived and worked in London through some very troubled times and major terrorist bombing campaigns, guns just breed paranoia!
With the 58th anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel, amazing what trouble a book by an Austrian journalist could cause, just a couple of days away we felt it would be safer to be away from Jerusalem in fact away from everyone! Much better to be some where on a beach, close to Ashdod and the port.
We said farewell to our new Korean and Japanese friends and Locklan an Australian round the world cyclist and hit the road. What is it with all these round the world cyclists, wouldn’t it be easier by motor bike or car or even public transport! Anyway it was good to be back in Grommet once more and on the move again. The route to the coast was enchanting and very pretty with small alpine like forests, fields of cereals ripe for the harvest and fruit trees, olive trees and flowers. Who was it who said Israel was all desert. Israel isn’t a very big country and it wasn’t long before we were nearing the port. We popped in to see the shipping agent, (official hustlers with an official sized fee) in an office full of Israeli ‘wanabe’ porn stars, to say that we were in the area, so apart from a little bit of paperwork we were free to go and find some where to camp, everything would happen on Sunday. Arthur and Swantje weren’t that clear when it came to Ashdod and places to camp so we headed for the sea front and followed it until the town ran out, here the beach was deserted apart from a few guys fishing. Perfect white sand, huge dunes and the big blue Mediterranean sea stretching out before us, some where out there is Malaga and our new home in Spain and the ship to take us there. It was a pity that the sea was a bit on the cold side as it looked very inviting so we’ll leave the masks and snorkels packed away. I parked in the dunes and we settled down to relax for a few days until Sunday. What we hadn’t allowed for was that we had some how got the date wrong for Israel’s anniversary day. Every man and his dog was on the beach, with every toy imaginable “4x4’s, quads, motor bikes, paragliders, jet skis, plus all the other beach paraphernalia, tents, gazebos and barbeques and loud Israeli music. So much for the peace and quiet! It actually reminded me a little of Spain. I was quite surprised that now one got hurt with all the 4x4’s and the quads racing about through the dunes. At last the day was at an end and peace returned, along with a howling gale, so we moved home to a spot well out of the way hidden in the dunes. A few days of R and R and then every body was back on the beach, of course it was Saturday. Tom, the Canadian had given us a call and dropped by with a small group of his relatives and their children to say “adios” which was nice of him. Maybe we will see them in Spain, who knows the world is a small place!
The beach where we were camping was fairly close Gaza and the Palestinian territories and every day we could hear the constant Boom! Boom! Boom! Of the bombing and occasionally you could see the helicopter gun ships firing off missiles in the Gaza direction, it’s crazy. We were extremely relived to see our ship appear on the horizon Saturday afternoon.
Sunday morning we were at the port nice and early, we’d been told the formalities take a lot of time and they did a lot of waiting about while security, etc, tried to decide what to do with us. But after we’d been through a metal detector and some of our baggage had been x-rayed and then there was the paper work and there seemed quite a lot of it and the money for the various hustlers, we were at last free to go and drive little Grommet aboard the enormous Grimaldi Lines Grande Mediterraneo.
I have to say, I had never wanted to visit Israel and it had never been part of our plan to visit Israel but I’m glad we came. I’m glad to be able to see what a determined people can achieve in a relatively short space in time and how extreme paranoia will eventually bring about their down fall, if there was no Palestinian “problem” they would find something else to fight about. Jew against Jew, Christian against Christian, white skin against black or blue eyes against green……………….
At 11.00pm we set sail and left!
‘The rules are..’
‘The Waling Wall Divers’
Tom: “it’s like this, Jackie”
Still cooking on ‘the no. 2’
Ah, must be Jordan
Too many tourist…
It’s ok uncle Sam is on our side
Dead Sea -383m
Dead Sea surfers
Old crones selling leaves
Don’t step on the faithful
The rolling stones
Satellite link to God
What? More X-Rays?
Wailing at the wall
Dome of the Rock
By the Med
Sunset on the Med
Safely aboard, next stop Portugal…