Okay, I confess: when I ended the last post by saying that Peder and I entered Israel through the West Bank it was more for effect than anything else 😛 The reality is that the King Hussein Bridge – known as Allenby Crossing on the Israeli side – is extremely well-guarded and safe. You take a transport bus across (and through dozens of checkpoints), then catch a shuttle which brings you straight into Jerusalem.
The Israeli immigration itself was fairly amusing though. First of all, it was staffed completely by very attractive 18-22 year-old females. This was apparently true the day before as well, when two travelers I met in Jerusalem had crossed. And unlike what you might expect of immigration officers in a military country, they were all completely smiley and friendly – even when they were grilling us with questions.
Once the bus dropped us off in Jerusalem we walked around for a bit trying to find a hotel that would watch our bags while we briefly explored the Old City. The first couple rejected us, but the third – after being satisfied with our answer to the question “There’s no bombs inside, right?” – said no problem.
I first introduced Peder to the Western Wall, followed by a stop in the street markets in the Muslim Quarter and then the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (it was my first visit here as well). We also dropped by by Oskar Schindler’s grave on the way towards the bus stop, but it was getting late and the gates to the cemetery had already closed.
Finally, we caught a bus back to Tel Aviv and checked into Momo’s Hostel, one block away from the place we’d stayed before heading into Jordan.
So let’s recap. Peder and I had woken up at 5am in Petra. We’d traveled through Jordan to Amman, stopped for a dip in the Dead Sea, crossed the overland border to Israel, bussed into Jerusalem, explored the old city, and returned to Tel Aviv. It was somewhere around 9pm.
Time for sleep?
Nah. His flight to Turkey doesn’t depart until 4am. There’s still time for one last night out!
What we didn’t realize was that it was Holocaust Memorial Day, and let’s not forget what I said about how seriously Israelis take their national holidays. Memorial Day here doesn’t just mean that most businesses close – it means everything has to close. By law. Walking around the streets of Tel Aviv that night, the city was an absolute ghost town. Not even AMPM was open for business. If your car ran out of gas, you’d have some serious problems.
Oh well, I guess a couple hours of sleep couldn’t hurt.
We got to the room and I went to grab my toothbrush out of my luggage.
It was GONE!
NO FREAKIN’ WAY.
I flicked on the lights and started tearing apart the room in a panic. Then I noticed something. A guy in one of the beds was laughing.
It was Sammy.
By total coincidence, Mike, Sammy, and Robbie-San had checked into not only the hostel, but the same room as Peder and I. Recognizing my bag they thought it’d be funny to hide it under one of their beds.
The next morning Peder woke up at 4 and caught a cab to the airport. The rest of us went downstairs around 10 to have our “free breakfast” – a pastry and a cup of coffee – and check our e-mail.
Then, out of nowhere, a loud, screeching air raid siren began to fill the air.
Everyone froze. Everyone. Outside the window every car had stopped – and the drivers had gotten out of their cars right in the middle of the street. Not one human being was moving – just standing dead still, staring at the ground.
A chill ran down my spine. It felt like something out of the Twilight Zone.
I stood there in confusion as the sirens howled for what felt like an eternity. Then they stopped, and as quickly as everything froze, someone pressed play on the world again. Cars started moving, people continued sipping their cups of coffee, and cyclists picked up their feet and started pedaling on their way.
What the hell just happened??
A Holocaust memorial.
Israelis take their holidays seriously.
Once we checked out from Momo’s the guys headed back to Jerusalem and I returned to Sky Hostel. The quality of the two places were similar, but the guy at the front desk of Momo’s was such a jerk that I didn’t want to stay there any longer – he wouldn’t even let Peder drop off his bags before paying.
“Can I just leave my stuff and run to the ATM real quick?”
“No. Only paid guests are allowed upstairs. Sorry, it’s the rules.”
Screw you, man.
And that brings us pretty much up-to-date. With the exception of an overnight beach party outside of the city that Liat invited us to, I’ve been spending the bulk of the last week in the hostel working on a code project for Peder, going through pictures, blogging, and periodically socializing with my ever-changing roomates. The most interesting roomate has probably been Ash, a 35-year-old guitarist who came to Israel to visit his two daughters. It’s crystal clear from his mannerisms that he used to be a drug addict, and he does act a bit strange at times, but overall he’s a very nice guy and has been in this room almost as long as I have.
Tomorrow is Israeli Independence Day, and in preparation for a massive airshow, fighter jets have been tearing across the skies for the last few days. It’s pretty incredible how close they come to the beachfront hotel windows, and I’m surprised the windows haven’t shattered from the sheer power of the engines. When one of those things zooms by every car alarm in a mile radius goes off.
Two more of those “air raid siren” events have also happened – one of which I caught on video.
Sammy and Robbie head back to the states tomorrow morning, leaving just three more Birthright participants – myself, Mike, and Annette (who has actually moved permanently to Israel).
Mike and I just extended our tickets again, and will be in the Middle East until the end of May when I head straight to New York for a friend’s wedding.
Tel Aviv is expensive as hell, but I really, really like it here.