Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Israel/Jordan/Oman: Getting Around, Getting into Trouble

Shortly after arriving in Egypt, I remembered why it's often a bad idea to be in a hurry when traveling in the Middle East. Unfortunately I didn't apply this lesson on my recent trip to Oman.

As you might imagine, flying to the Arab world from Ben Gurion isn't easy, and more importantly, isn't cheap. For that reason, I head to the Gulf from Amman's Queen Alia. Options from there are plentiful, as just in the years since I first went to Jordan in 2001, the city has clearly developed as a business hub, perhaps a sort of poor man's Dubai for those who can't afford the original. This trip, I wound up on Qatar Airways, which is the best of the normally priced airlines in the region, and apparently one of the world's fastest growing. To Bahrain I took Bahrain's national carrier, Gulf Air, which is fine if a little quirky, while to Dubai I was one Royal Jordanian. When I flew with them in 2001 I was in awe of how miserable the experience was; since then, they've upgraded as part of joining the Oneworld Alliance, and as of last year had risen to the level of just a normal bad airline, though they still haven't mastered the complexity of the seat map. All of them (and Turkish Airlines, for that matter) have better in-flight service than do most American airlines. A two-hour flight always has a meal, while even a short hour-long hop will merit breakfast or time-appropriate snack.

In any case, getting to Queen Alia means going to Jordan, and since I didn't get around to picking up a visa, I had to go to northern Israel to cross at the Shaykh Hussein bridge and then head back down to Amman. Because my flight wasn't until 4:30, I figured I had plenty of time to do all of this catching the first bus from Jerusalem at 8:45, as the total travel time was less than four hours, not counting a bit of time crossing the border and waiting for the frequent buses involved in cheaply getting from Irbid, the Jordanian city near the border crossing, to the airport. Some of the buses could also be skipped in favor of private taxis if I were running seriously behind. Israel's national bus company, Egged, is almost always on time and the Shaykh Hussein crossing is usually deserted, so I really wasn't concerned.

All of that changed shortly after I arrived at the bus station to find that all departures were being delayed due to a suspicious package. Israel, as you might imagine, takes those seriously. With a steadily increasing crowd of other travelers, I waited somewhat nervously. While I did have time to spare in case things went wrong, I didn't actually want to use it, especially this early. Finally at 9:30 the all-clear signal was given, and shortly thereafter I was on the standard green Egged bus that plowed route 966 to Ketzarin via Bet She'an, where I pressed the signal button and got off at about 11:20, and arrived by local taxi at the border crossing about 10 or 15 minutes later.

Leaving Israel by land is much easier than flying out through Ben Gurion, though usually not quite as easy as it was with Taba last month. The trick is that for added security at the Shaykh Hussein and King Hussein bridges, and perhaps at the Wadi Araba crossing in the south, you have to actually cross in a special bus which stops for security checks at both an Israeli and Jordanian checkpoint. [Incidentally, Shaykh Hussein and King Hussein are officially the Jordanian names, but because these days Arabs and tourists are the only ones who use them, you never hear the official Israeli names of Jordan Valley (for the north) and Allenby (by the Dead Sea). This does mean you always have to check to make sure you're on the same page with whomever you're talking to about which bridge you want.]

I was once the only person on such a bus, though normally there are several others. I was not, however, prepared for what awaited me at the bus station that day, and a steady stream of Palestinian-Israelis pushing whole carts of luggage were making their way to Jordanian universities for the start of the new academic year. This meant that not only could I not cram onto the first bus which came and had to wait for a new one, but when you did get on a bus, it took forever to get everyone officially ticketed, and then the checkpoints took forever as not only were there more passports to check, but all the people standing in the aisle had to pile off the bus and then pile back on so that the security official could get on board to check them.

I had hoped that all these students had Jordanian multiple-entry visas they used to go back and forth a lot, but such was not the case, so I also had to stand in line for awhile to get my visa. The upshot of all this was that I emerged from the crossing at about 2:00. I was out of options, and so forked over a whopping $90 as the going rate for a direct taxi from the border to Queen Alia. (The distance itself wasn't worth, but taxis from borders are always more expensive, as are taxis to airports.) The driver drove like a Cairene heroically enough that, even though the trip is normally about 2 hours, I arrived outside the airport's departure gate at 3:22, just before it closed an hour before flight time. In theory. What I had not realized is that, while Daylight Savings Time ended in Israel in mid-September, it didn't end in Jordan until late October. It was actually 4:30 when I arrived at the counter, and I had, for the first time ever, missed my flight.

There wasn't anything to do except get a hotel room for the night, which fortunately is incredibly cheap in Amman, as I've noted many times before. This involved taking an express shuttle into Amman, so I went over to the arrivals end of the terminal where, near the airport taxi stand, there was a sign for this express shuttle, together with a schedule noting that it came every half hour during the day. There I waited, being joined shortly by some students from other Arab countries arriving in Jordan for the start of the academic year. At one point a shuttle flew by us without stopping. That was annoying, but in theory, another would come. As it began to get dark, none had. Finally one of the baggage handlers who had been noticing us for awhile came and told us that even though it was marked as such, where we were standing was no longer used as a bus stop, and we had to cross the street to the other terminal, where we did, in fact, find a shuttle, which soon departed with us aboard.

The next morning I went to the Qatar Airways office, where the woman was very understanding, and told me that everyone coming from Jerusalem had missed that flight. I was a little surprised that there would be enough people to be called an "everyone," but apparently Qatar Airways even has a Jerusalem office which serves mainly Palestinians and some Israeli businessmen with business in the Gulf. I then chilled until about noon, when I hailed a taxi for the bus station. This, unfortunately, proved somewhat more complicated than it should have been. Amman's characterful but crowded downtown bus station, Abdali, closed a few weeks before I arrived, it's traffic being divided between the small North Bus Station and another one on the outskirts of the city and now nobody knows where anything is. The upshot of this was that I actually stopped at a certain place along the freeway where the airport shuttle stopped en route. A nearby taxi driver offered to drive me to the airport for 12 dinars. The standard price is actually 10, but I didn't bother haggling, as I had plenty of time, and just indicated I would just wait for the bus. Unfortunately, the bus declined to wait for me, and about 15 minutes later sped by without stopping despite my waves. I quickly reckoned that I could wait for the next bus and still make it reasonably if not comfortably, but...I looked back at the taxi driver, who just said "10 JD," at which we set off.

I had a great time in Oman, as I will relate later. Travel within the country is pretty easy. There's a national bus company, ONTC, but it seems entirely superfluous, as there are minibuses and shared taxis which go everyone more quickly than the bus, depart far more frequently, and cost the same or only a little more. A place I came to know well was the Rusayl Roundabout, marked by a huge clocktower in the Muscat suburb of ar-Rusayl and the place where the roads to Sohar and Nizwa diverged. This is a major transport hub, and shared taxis and minibuses depart from here not only on an intercity basis, but for the main roads and suburbs within the Greater Muscat area.

While in Oman, I also spent time hanging out with my old Arabic conversation partner, her husband, and their 8-month-old baby girl, who was working at standing up. The latter is a skill that can be difficult to learn at first, but is absolutely necessary to lead a fulfilling life, and an important precursor to walking. She succeeded one time while I was around, albeit with a bit of help from mom and dad, to general applause. In between this standing up business, however, she was actively crawling, true to the traditions of her nomadic ancestors. The crawling led to her parents getting a great deal of exercise, not only because there are lurking dangers such as occasional sharp objects and my potentially toxic shoes, but because she is also at a stage where she is unable to tell the difference between food and, well, anything else. Anything that entered her hand would quickly start heading for the mouth unless snatched away. Still, I gained insight into the mother-child bond from the continual care which the female parent in particular generally takes in caring for their offspring.

According to the Qatar Airways information, Jordan's Daylight Savings time ended while I was in Oman, and my flight landed at 2:30. I figured out that this left enough time to get back to Jerusalem that night. The key time was 7:30, when the last bus passed through Bet She'an heading south, which I could make because the Shaykh Hussein border crossing was open until 8:00. I quickly passed through passport control and customs, to emerge next to a sign and schedule for the airport shuttle. I waited a few minutes, but I was getting savvy at this, and asked a taxi driver if this was the real bus stop or the fake one. It was the fake one, so I ran to the other terminal and got on the bus at 3:25, thinking it would leave as scheduled at 3:30 and I'd be at the Amman bus station at 4:15. For some reason, however, the bus did not leave until 4:05. On the way back, I considered getting off at the same stop where I had been passed by 10 days earlier, but realized I would definitely need a taxi straight from Amman to get to the border. I figured it was just as much to pay for that as for a decent hotel room, $40 at most. That, I figured, would be easiest at the bus station, and so alighted there at 4:50. Half of my five hours was gone, and I had advanced all the way from the Amman airport to Amman.

I quickly found a taxi who agreed to go for about $35, and off we went. About five minutes later, however, we began to realize a small problem. Despite my efforts to be clear, specifying the "Shaykh Hussein Bridge, in the north, near Irbid," he thought I meant the King Hussein Bridge which is closer to Amman. An additional point leading to the confusion was that, because the bridges are so similarly named, Jordanians usually call the Shaykh Hussein crossing the Jordan Valley crossing, leaving the King Hussein bridge as the only Hussein. The price was ridiculous for that, but of course he thought he was over-charging a foreigner. What's more, there was no way to exit the freeway in sight, so if we called it off and he returned me to the bus station, he'd have wasted valuable gas and I'd have to give up on getting home that night. He haggled the price up a bit more, then agreed to go, though he said he normally didn't go up that way.

That admission was definite clue regarding what was to come, and it sort of was, but I didn't act on it. Even though the Shaykh Hussein bridge is always referred to as "by Irbid," coming from Amman you actually cut diagonally toward the Jordan through Salt and never enter Irbid, leading to a trip of 90 minutes. I didn't pick up on it in time, but my quiet fear was correct: He went to Irbid and tried to find the road from there, circling the city for about half an hour looking for directions. At some point therein I pretty much gave up on getting home that night, and so got used to the rather adventurous spirit of the whole affair, since to a certain extent we bonded in our frustration and the fact we were lost. (I gave him a couple of Nizwa dates, while he bought me a coffee.) Eventually we found the right road, and at about 7:00 picked up a guy working in one of the security services who lived by the crossing and knew exactly where it was. When he found out I was actually planning to cross the border, though, as opposed to just go somewhere near it, he took out his cell phone and said he thought there might be a problem, because the border closed at 8. I turned around and looked at him, and I wonder now what my facial expression was. Apparently it was 8 p.m. Jordanian time, and they'd changed Daylight Savings Time so that it now goes until the end of October.

Fortunately the Jordanians just kept the border open until 9 p.m., or 8 p.m. Israeli time, so I made it across. Once there, you need another taxi to go anywhere, but none were hanging around that late, so I had to call one and wait for it. While I was there, the border post started to shut down, and various security guards inspecting everything kept asking me why I was still hanging about. I've closed down several types of establishments in my life, but this was my first border crossing. Finally the taxi came, and shortly thereafter I had an over-priced hotel room in Bet She'an, where I promptly fell asleep.



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