Friday, July 13, 2012

DAY 5 - Bus from hell and the Promised Land

I was dressed and ready to go. We would need to hail a cab and be at the bus station no later than 06:00. Not wanting to waste around, we left the hostel at 5:30 in the morning.

I was anxious to start the next phase of our travel. Israel! The night before, I'd met two American girls in the lobby of our hostel who were backpacking Egypt. We talked about my bus trip into Israel and one of the girls looked around cautiously and said, Remember - we didn't have this conversation! She was joking, but it was one of several incidences when I had mentioned Israel to another person (while in Egypt) and the person acted cautious.

In fact, I had mentioned my border crossings to one of our desk clerks and he intensely informed me that I WOULD NOT be able to enter Jordan with Israel on my passport! His remark stunned and dismayed me, until I reminded myself that I had spent MONTHS researching this exact information and that I COULD enter and re-enter all three countries. I shook away his remarks and noted mentally the tension between certain Egyptians and Israelites.

As we headed for the bus station, I remembered a comment several months back from a backpacker who had described his bus ride into Israel as the bus from hell.

His bus from hell consisted of the bus being too cold (from air conditioning) and loud Arabic music.

What a relief for me!

When he said, bus from hell, I was envisioning NO AIR CONDITIONING and as for the music, well, that's part of the experience of traveling the Middle East!

His comment made me realize that we all have different expectations on our travels. What was his hell, was really my heaven. So with that thought in mind, I hope people realize that my trip report is merely an account of MY own enterpretations and MY own expectations of this trip.

There was a bit of confusion when we arrived at the bus station. I found zero guards that could speak English and kept getting conflicting information. My bus would depart from gate 6 -- no gate 5 --- gate 6--- wait, gate 4--- gate 6! Our bus was to leave at 06:30, no 07:00!

A bus pulled into Gate 6 and we grabbed our packs and stood in line. A guard waved us away and shook his head. A handful of men stepped on the bus and it pulled away.

To my relief three English speaking women, of Filipino and Indian descent, appeared who were also catching the same bus to Taba. Now I had traveling companions to get lost with! But fortunately, our bus appeared and our driver confirmed that yes indeed, we were on the right bus - at gate 5, AND we were to depart at 07:00! (The day before, our guide said we were to depart at 06:30!)

Pamela and I settled into our seats for the 7+ hour drive. Leaving the city of Cairo took over an hour as we had morning traffic, and finally we reached the sprawling desert.
The landscape turned yellow and Arabic music played moderately over the speakers as the axles of the bus grinded and squeaked as we sped across the asphalt.

Occasionally the bus would come to a slow crawl or to a complete stop as we seemed to be inspected by the military every 20 to 30 miles. Sometimes they waved us past, or climbed aboard the bus to check our passports. I looked out the window and saw guards strategically standing throughout the desert. I realized we were fast approaching the Suez Canal. Another guard came aboard and asked me my nationality, and passport. He searched my papers carefully. He looked over at Pam and I told him she was my daughter. He nodded in satisfaction and walked to the back of the bus. Two Arabic men were led off the bus and detained. Our bus left without them. I decided against pulling out my camera.

Soon we entered a lighted two-laned tunnel. We were driving under the Suez Canal! I turned to tell Pamela but she was fast asleep.

Finally our bus pulled to a stop in front of what appeared to be a row of shacks. Our bus driver shut down the engine, opened the door and lit a cigarette. This was our one and only rest stop before hitting the border.

Not wanting to waste our only opportunity to use the bathroom, we stretched and climbed outside into the dust and heat. There were tables spread outdoors, and inside the building. The women gravited inside to the far backside of the wall, and we cautiously entered the bathroom and approached each stall. Door number 1? Door number 2? Or door number 3? We couldn't decide. Each stall was as bad as the other.
Pamela and I shrugged, chose door number 1, taking turns holding the door closed for each other. I reminded myself it was no different than using an outhouse. Don't look at what's inside the toilet, squat, and just do your business. We had no choice. I generously handed out toilet paper to the other ladies, baby wipes, and hand sanitizer as we stood by the sink that didn't work.

Stretching our limbs we walked back outside to a rundown snack booth and peered inside. Everything looked dusty! I wondered if sales were poor and if the food were expired, but then I remembered we were in the desert. Of course! Everything needed to be dusted on a daily basis! The area was fast reminding me of when we had lived in West Texas! The same flat landscape, the dust, and I would soon learn later, the same type of dust storms!

Pamela and I purchased Cokes, some potato chips that we couldn't figure out what flavor, and some chocolate snack cakes. I could tell when we paid that our prices were jacked up. Naturally with no competition out in the middle of the Sinai desert, a person could ask for anything!

Taba, Egypt

With anticipation, we braced ourselves for the remainder of the drive, crossing another series of road inspections and guards.
Finally things started getting exciting. Up in the distance the Negev mountains were appearing and the landscape changed. I could tell we were getting closer to Israel! My ears started popping as we entered into the clefts of the mountains and the peaks towered higher and higher above us blocking the sun.

Finally we entered Taba, and our bus came to a welcoming stop!
We dragged our packs down the steps of the bus, stepped onto the dirt driveway, and slung our backpacks over our shoulders and walked towards the Taba station. The two Indian lady friends wished us well, and headed straight for the border. They muttered something about needing to catch another bus.

We decided to wait for Diane, the Filipino lady we had befriended, while she used the bathroom. After realizing we had to go too, and taking our turns, everyone was very anxious to head for the border! We slung our packs over our shoulders and walked together to the Egyptian station for more visa checks, passport inspections and x-ray machines.

Finally, we were outside again and walking to Israel!
As expected, we had to show our passports every few steps as we neared the border. Finally we entered the airconditioned building of our final stop, and handed our passports through a glass window to a female Israeli solider. She flipped through the pages of my passport, glanced at me to verify my photo, then stamped something. Then she leafed through Pamela's passport, glanced at her, and smiled real wide. She happily stamped her passport too and waved us on.

This was becoming too easy. I had read earlier about people being interrogated and detained for hours at the Israeli border. We declared our belongings to customs, went through another series of x-ray machines, conveyer belts, passport checks, and each time we were waved on.
Welcome to Israel!

Our new friend, Diane wanted us to have lunch at the deli inside the building before we went any further. I agreed. With all that walking, and struggling with our packs, we needed to freshen up with a hot meal and something to drink! Pamela and I agreed to split the fish and rice dish, and ordered a coke. The meal was incredibly delicious!

After we had eaten, I couldn't locate an ATM machine to change money into the Israeli Shekel. (NIS) I had paid the cashier for our food in American USD, but it had cost me a small fortune! Using the NIS would have saved me some money.

Unable to locate a machine and pay for my cab, Diane very generously offered to share a cab and foot the bill. I had after all, saved her some money. She had purchased two bottles of Jack Daniels at the Egyptian Duty Free shop, but Israel only allowed one bottle to enter the country. Since we were traveling together, the Israeli customs had allowed (between us both) to enter her two bottles! Even better, Diane knew where the shelter was located that we were headed for. Her office was nearby! I thanked Diane profusely while we climbed into the cab. I listened in amazement as she spoke to our cab driver in fluent Hebrew.

While we were in the cab, Diane answered her phone and started yelling in both Hebrew and English. She stopped to explain to me that her husband was mad at her. I looked away embarrassed for her as she continued yelling. After she got off the phone, she explained that her husband was upset because she was arriving home a day late. She had missed her bus the day before (after our bus station experience, I totally understood!) She went on to explain that since her husband is an Israelite citizen, he was unable to enter Egypt with her! This explained why she was taking a cab, rather then him picking her up! She explained to me again that this was his way of showing how mad he was. She had to walk home!

I stared out the cab window, soaking in the sights. Like a glass of fresh cool water, the landscape greeted us. Palm trees, mountains, and the sparkling blue waters of the Red Sea appeared to our right. The cab came to a stop on a street corner and Diane pointed to a thicket of trees and palms. We were at the Shelter! Thanking her again, we bid farewell, and Pamela and I grabbed our packs. We followed the sidewalk to the gated entrance of the shelter, stepped inside, past the outdoor beduin-styled living area, and wound our way around the corner to the office.

With a sigh of relief, we dropped our packs to the floor and talked with the young volunteer who confirmed our reservations. We had requested a private room for the first day so we could rest, but would be moving to the dorms in the morning. I inquired about laundry facilities and was informed they didn't have any for the guests. John, the owner of the hostel, overheard my question and said that "laundromats" were not common in the Middle East! This was only something we had in the States! He then very generously offered me the use of the hostel's washer and that I could line dry my clothes. He explained to the guy at the front desk that we had traveled a very long ways from Cairo!

I appreciated his generosity and as soon as we had settled into our room of 2 bunkbeds (to ourselves), I stuffed as many clothes as I could into his small machine. The day before, while at the hostel in Cairo, I was offered the use of their tiny machine in the bathroom. I was informed to hand our wet clothes over to the Arabic woman (who had been serving us our breakfast each morning) and she would hang our clothes to dry outside our 4th floor window! I balked at the idea, as it was already late and we were leaving for Israel in the morning.

Although tired, I was anxious to explore the town of Eilat, but I needed to wait on the washer so we could hang our clothes. A clothesline was hung on the other side of the building for staff to wash sheets, and for guests to hang their own after hand washing. I looked at the outdoor sink and appreciated again that the owner had allowed me the use of his washer!

After our clothes were hung, Pamela and I walked outside the hostel and crossed into the park with a playscape and wooden benches. This is where we would find ourselves for the next several days hooking up to the free Internet. The signal was picked up as Kidoom, allowing us to surf the web on my laptop from a parkbench. I immediately emailed Alan, and told him we were in Israel! After we were done checking our mail, we walked down the sloping sidewalk, catching sight of the Red Sea down below.

We passed a bank and used their outdoor ATM to withdraw some funds. Earlier Diane had explained to me how to identify the NIS (New Israeli Shekel) from the Egyptian LE. Both currencies had the same concept. A shekel was the same as a pound, and the coins broke down into 1/2 shekel, 10 cents equivalent of a shekel, and some coins were marked as 2 shekels, 5 shekels, and 10 shekels. The bills were self explanatory. In Egypt, instead of coins, some of the breakdowns of the pound were in paper piastries (sp)

We walked to the Red Sea, passing a series of shops, markets, movie theatres, and shopping malls.

We played around the promenade until the sun dropped, people watching. What a total contrast to Egypt! It was like being back in the states. Light and colorful clothes, sandals, suntops, suntans, shorts, long windblown hair. Music flowed, and the smells of popcorn, cotton candy, yogurt, ice cream, and roasted corn on the cob, filled the night.

We walked into the shopping mall by the sea, and handed over our purses for a bag check, and to walk through the metal detector. Soldiers in plain clothes walked the mall, carrying machine guns. We would soon learn to expect this everywhere we went.

After ordering our falafel at the food court, Pamela and I wished we had split ours. It was more food than we could handle. Our appetites still hadn't returned. But they were good!

We were tired.

As Scarlett O'Hara had said, TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY!

We climbed the steep hill, back to our hostel.


Anonymous said...

I'm really enjoying traveling with you.. can't wait for the next read.

Patty said...

What did you find bad about the bus ride?
What exactly was wrong with the sink you saw when you were hanging your clothes?
Did the clothes line have clothespins?

It still surprises me that Israel was so modern; popcorn, cotton candy, roasted corn…it sounds like a carnival. Everything is so interesting.

Helen said...


1.) The "bus from hell" was in reference to someone else's interpretation.

2.) Nothing wrong with sink. I was just happy (and too tired) to handwash my clothes, so thankful for the generous machine wash!

3.) Yes, clothes pins provided, but sometimes not enough. The clothesline had to handle the staff and the guests clothes, so sometimes we had to drape our stuff.