My aforementioned compatriot Drew and I spent most of the first half of 2006 planning an epic journey to India. School, already a low priority, took a backseat to countless hours of poring over the 1,220 pages of Lonely Planet’s tome-like production. Jaipur, Bangalore, and the Ganges dominated our every waking moment.
Our bags had been packed for weeks by the time school’s tentacles released us for the summer so, with arms aching from vaccinations ranging from Japanese Encephalitis B to Typhoid, we beelined straight for the airport before our professors could say, “It was a blessing having you in class this semester.”
We spent our first day of freedom sitting in Newark, waiting to get our standby seats to Delhi. Our hopes were high at 10 AM when we found our empty gate, but they steadily dwindled over the next 12 hours as the ratio of turbans and saris to college backpackers spiraled ever-upward. As the plane began to board, we were despondent. There was not another Delhi-bound freedom bird for 24 hours, and our budget would realistically only sustain human life for about 17 hours in the United States. A taxi into the city was way outside our price range, let alone a place to stay. What were we going to do in Newark airport for 24 hours?! Then suddenly we heard it. “Mr. James and Mr. Her…hert…hirzz…please come to the check-in counter.” Our hearts leapt! We raced to the counter only to be greeted with the same look Julia Roberts received in Pretty Woman when she tried to buy some nice clothes. “Gentlemen, we have two seats available on this flight, but one is in first class and unfortunately you’re not dressed appropriately to take that seat.” Now this was a surprise, as we had worn jeans, collared shirts, and close-toed shoes in anticipation of the standby dress code. We were informed that first class standby required slacks which, oddly enough, we hadn’t packed for our month in India. With about 10 minutes to final boarding, we sprinted off to find slacks. We pawed through piles of golf shirts, I Heart NY t-shirts, and Lacoste polos…only to discover that there are no purveyors of men’s pants in Newark. As our ten minutes trickled away, we were outside at curbside check-in, trying to buy a Skycap’s pants, to no avail. The plane left without us, and we were stranded.
We abandoned our post at the Newark-Delhi gate and meandered aimlessly around the terminals, seemingly the only poor souls left in the building. Wistfully, we glanced up at the Departures monitors, envying our fellow travelers who had successfully boarded aircraft. Lisbon, London, Frankfurt…all had long-since slipped the bonds of New Jersey and winged off into the night. It was then that we noticed Tel Aviv, blinking seductively, “ON TIME.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to Israel,” I said to Drew. “So have I,” he said. Ten hours later we stepped off El Al flight 728 into Ben Gurion International Airport.
Israeli customs did not appreciate the unplanned nature of our visit, quickly funneling us into the “possible terrorists” waiting area where surly Mossad agents repeatedly grilled us regarding our plans (we had none), how much money we brought (not much), and where we were staying (we don’t know, can you tell us how to get to Jerusalem?). Exasperated, but apparently reassured that we were not members of Hamas, our interrogators pointed us toward the bus station and set us free.
(Many adventures were had, future posts forthcoming)
We eventually made our way south, to the Taba border crossing into Egypt. As one might expect, the Israeli’s are somewhat intense on the subject of security, so we were thoroughly searched leaving the country. We also paid an exit tax, which I’d never heard of before and found very interesting. Paying to leave…the ultimate captive market. So we made it into the Egyptian side of the crossing, and just as we were about to leave the gate, we were stopped by a guard. He asked where we were going, to which we replied, “Cairo.” Upon a quick examination of our passports, the guard informed us that in fact we were not going to Cairo, and that we only had visas for Sinai. Actually I think that conversation mostly consisted of him pointing at our passports and saying, “NO CAIRO,” but in any case, back we went to Israeli security. We were thoroughly searched (again) and spent a short lifetime haggling with the guards to get them to refund our exit tax. I was not kidding when I said we were on a tight budget, and that 20 shekels would buy a couple days’ worth of falafel.
By the time we returned to Israel, it was late afternoon and the border was closing. The Israeli guards told us to get a Cairo visa from the Egyptian Consulate in Eilat and come back the next day. We’d taken a taxi to the border, as it was about 10 miles out of town, and when we’d arrived there were buses and taxis all over the place. Of course, at closing time, the only cars were the personal vehicles of the border guards, and they all drove away without making eye contact with the two forlorn Americans standing outside their closed up border station. So there we were, stranded, on the Israeli edge of no-man’s-land, no food, and no water. It was too far to walk, and night was falling. We found a beach vendor who was trying to close her stand before she too fled for the city, luckily she had one sandwich left and a bottle or two of water which we purchased for the price of a 2007 Toyota Prius…good thing we got our exit tax money back. We ate our sandwich and went for a swim in the Red Sea, which helped us avoid dwelling on the fact that we were an internet ransom video waiting to happen.
We eventually decided that we’d call this “camping” and decided we’d sleep on the beach. Israel felt like the surface of the sun during the day, so we figured that sleeping under the stars would be pleasant. False. Once the sun had finally slipped beneath the horizon it got cold. Really cold. Drew and I were still outfitted for India in the summer, so our clothing was somewhat less than adequate for any temperature under 100 degrees. Each of us had purchased a thobe and trousers at a Palestinian tailor’s shop in Jerusalem, so we put those on, wrapped ourselves in keffiyeh’s and tried to sleep.
Other feeble attempts at keeping warm that night included, but were not limited to: burying ourselves in sand, trying to get into our backpacks, and shivering uncontrollably. Needless to say we arose the next day refreshed (sarcasm) and happy to be alive (not sarcasm). We also arose looking like sandy Palestinian hobos, which did not help us get a ride back to town.
Once we finally made it to Eilat, we spent most of the day playing cards with some Germans at the Egyptian consulate and stocking up on food and water for our second attempt at crossing the border. We were eventually successful in our quest to see Cairo, but that is a tale for another day.
So, in closing, let’s cover a few lessons learned for those of you who would like to cross the Israel-Egypt border on foot.
- Don’t do that.
- If you are determined to do it, get a Cairo visa in Eilat (playing cards with Germans is optional).
- Do not put on traditional Palestinian clothes and sleep outside with the bums.