Amazingly, entering Israel from Jordan marked the first time we made a land-border crossing on the trip. (Airfare proved relatively cheap and, as we didn’t have an unlimited amount of time at our disposal, flying often made the most sense.) Of course, we picked a doozy.
Like many travelers, we were aware that many Arab/Muslim countries will turn away visitors who have an Israeli visa stamp in their passport. Although we had no immediate plans to holiday in Iran, Syria or Lebanon, we didn’t want to rule out anything (you never know…)
To keep their options open, seasoned travelers have been known to ask Israeli immigration agents not to stamp their passports. We didn’t know it at the time, but Israeli immigration officials had recently ceased stamping passports anyway. Now they simply insert a removable slip of paper containing the visa information into the passport. As Him pointed out, however, it didn’t really matter whether Israel stamped our passports or not; Jordan immigration had stamped them with entry visas when we arrived in that country, and they would stamp them with exit visas when we left. It wouldn’t take much legwork for passport officials to guess where we went from the King Hussein / Allenby Bridge in Jordan.
We left Madaba at about 8:30 a.m. and after a few wrong turns, finally stumbled upon the King Hussein Bridge. We dropped off the car, a Citroen we had rented at the Avis within the Amman Airport, at a second Avis located just across the street from the bridge. Then we walked toward the customs office.
Although the staff members working at the King Hussein Bridge branch of Jordanian immigration were exceedingly friendly, the exercise of exiting their country by land proved an incredibly drawn-out affair.
Him and I began the border crossing process at about 10 a.m. Step-by-step, here’s how it all went down:
1. Agents x-rayed our bags.
2. We scribbled our names, passport numbers and nationality on slips of paper.
3. We settled into a sparsely decorated waiting room and twiddled our thumbs for about 30 minutes.
4. An agent called our name and we presented our passports to a man seated behind a glass partition. He inserted a piece of paper into each of our passports and stamped it.
5. We forked over 10 JD (an “exit tax”).
6. We twiddled our thumbs some more.
7. We forked over 5 JD each plus 0.50 JD for each of our bags.
8. We watched as our luggage was shoved under a bus and then we boarded the bus.
9. Moving at approximately 5 mph, the bus proceeded to drive about 100 feet before stopping at Checkpoint No. 1. The driver conferred with a man in a little booth.
10. Moving at approximately 5 mph, the bus proceeded to drive about 100 additional feet before stopping at Checkpoint No. 2. The driver conferred with a man in a little booth.
11. Moving at approximately 5 mph, the bus proceeded to drive about 100 additional feet before stopping at Checkpoint No. 3. The driver conferred with a man in a little booth.
12. Moving at approximately 5 mph, the bus proceeded to drive about 100 additional feet before it suddenly stopped and an armed official in full military regalia boarded. Marching down the aisle, he collected each passenger’s tax receipt and immigration form. The official exited the bus.
13. The bus crossed a short bridge, the kind engineers typically build over creeks in the U.S. This particular bridge spanned a trickle known as the Jordan River.
14. The bus stopped so armed officials could aim sticks with mirrors on them under the vehicle.
15. The bus continued, advancing about 200 feet before stopping at the tail end of a long line of buses.
16. Following a 45-minute wait, the bus arrived at a terminal outside the Israeli customs building. (I assumed this meant we had crossed into Israel) We collected our bags and joined the tail-end of an impressively long line of travelers awaiting their chance to simply enter the building. None of these people, it should be mentioned, understood the concept of queuing despite the maze of metal barriers clearly indicating the need to queue.
17. Still outside, we handed our larger luggage to agents who stickered the bags and then inserted them into some sort of chute leading into the great unknown.
18. Our elbows locked outward to deter “cutters” (those assholes of all assholes who try to weasel their way ahead by sneaking by you, pushing a bag in front of you, or shoving their grandmother in front of you), we advanced at a glacial pace toward a particularly grumpy young woman seated in a booth.
19. After about an hour in the outside line, the particularly grumpy young woman quizzed us about the purpose of our entry into her country (“Um, to experience the confluence of three major religions?”). Only when she was convinced we had no designs to annihilate Israel did the agent allow us to enter the building and join – oh boy! – another freakishly long line to pass through a metal detector.
NOTE: If you plan to visit Bethlehem in the West Bank, don’t mention this to Israeli immigration officials. They have been known, on occasion, to deny entrance to Israel when tourists mention crossing into the West Bank.
20. After a 45-minute wait, we passed through the metal detector and an agent glanced at our passports.
21. We joined yet another line, this one ending at an immigration official who also quizzed us about our intentions in Israel and about the radical extremists we planned to meet there. When satisfied, this woman inserted a removable slip of paper (the magical visa) into each of our passports.
22. We proceeded to a final checkpoint in which a male agent scanned our visas and then permitted Him to pass and collect his luggage but prohibited me from doing so.
23. I sat. Waited for my name to be called.
24. By observing the exchange between customs agents and the other ne’er do wells, I realized we had been flagged to answer for some sort of oddity or other encased within our luggage. I walked over to the sorting room and watched as agents set about tackling my bag. When the young man wrangled a wad of newspaper from my “NorthFake duffle,” I immediately identified the culprit: a brass lock shaped like a tiger. I had purchased it at a shop near Bandhavgarh National Park in India as a souvenir for a friend. As small as a child’s toy, the figurine’s locking mechanism consisted of two long, straight pins attached to the tiger’s tail. When inserted into the tiger’s rear, as when the lock was secured, those two pins might just appear suspect to an X-ray technician. I observed as the young man removed the newspaper and proceeded to yank at the poor tiger’s tail.
“That’s mine,” I said, stepping forward. “Can I show you how it works?”
Needless to say, the man was thoroughly impressed by my tiger trinket and allowed me to continue, with my bags, into the Promised Land. After a nearly five-hour trip spanning just about a mile in distance, Him, yet another bus and the ancient city of Jerusalem awaited me on the other side.
Helpful websites to plan your own Israel land-border crossing:
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, http://mfa.gov.il/MFA/ConsularServices/Pages/Visas.aspx
United States Consulate General, Jerusalem, http://jerusalem.usconsulate.gov/border-crossings.html
U.S. Department of State, Israel, West Bank & Gaza, http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/country/israel.html