Adventures in the Middle East
There is a classic song by Baz Luhrmann called “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen”, in which he says:
“Get to know your parents, you never know when they’ll be gone for good”.
The song is filled with little gems of wisdom about life, but the one about my parents has always stuck in my head. And so it happened that my father became my fifth co-pilot on a particularly thrilling part of my Dark Star Safari through Jordan and Israel, one of the few countries left in the Middle East where you can travel freely, with the exception of the Gulf States. Six years ago my father and I cycled for a month from Zambia to Rwanda, and now we had another opportunity to bond for almost three weeks in Jordan and Israel.
Traveling together with my father through two incredibly fascinating and historically dense countries was a real highlight of the journey, but the bureaucracy of traveling around with a car in the region was painful, to say the least and resulted in extraordinary and unexpected delays.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
It took a full week to get the car out of the container from Aqaba port and back onto the road, of which five days were spent in Aqaba by the Red Sea. My clearing agent, an incompetent and uncommunicative local, spoke only Arabic, which made it even harder for me to understand the nature of the delays and the outrageous costs. In between aggravating phone calls with my agent, I went scuba diving in the Red Sea, which admittedly was breathtaking. The coral reefs in Aqaba have been left mostly untouched as the majority of tourists used to head to Sharm-el-Sheikh, until in 2015 a Russian charter airline with more than 200 tourists on board was blown up above the Sinai, resulting in a sharp decrease in tourism.
Once I had the car back in my possession, I set off for Petra to meet my father. Petra was the ancient capital of the Nabateans, built over 2,000 years ago and served as a major trading hub between the East and the West. It was only rediscovered 200 years ago by a Swiss explorer and has since become an iconic tourist attraction in Jordan, rightfully so. After a walk of about 2 km through a narrow and winding canyon, it opens up to the Treasury, a beautiful temple carved into the pink sandstone cliffs. As you venture deeper into the canyons, more temples and tombs appear, and you can easily spend two days exploring this vast ancient city. Our visit, however, was in the heat of summer, so we spent half a day exploring, finding shade wherever we could.
We continued our journey, stopping briefly in Amman, and visited Jerash, an old Roman city to the North of Amman that has been very well preserved over a period of more than 2,000 years, and restored with the help of USAID. Besides Jerash, Jordan has much more to offer including Wadi Rum and the Dead Sea, but the unexpected delays related to clearing the car meant that we had to cut our time in Jordan short.
Border crossings and weddings
We had planned to cross the border into Israel the day after visiting Jerash, to make it in time for the pre-wedding drinks in Tel Aviv of my INSEAD friend Steve Anavi, but that unfortunately went miserably wrong. Crossing the Jordan – Israel border at the Sheikh Hussein bridge in the north was one of the most unnerving and stressful experiences of this journey in the past six months!
After 6 hours of stress and 16 checkpoints (see attached picture), we were coldly sent back to Jordan because the authorization letter given to me by Tom (the owner of the car), was not official. Had I had sufficient time I would have been upset but not stressed, but the fact that I had planned to attend Steve and Natalie’s wedding in Tel Aviv the day after made it a very stressful experience.
In the end, we returned to Amman in Jordan, disillusioned. While Tom organised an official letter in London, I crossed into Israel by bus the next morning (another 5 hour ordeal) in order to make it to the wedding in time.
Exhausted, I made it to the wedding, and it was well worth the effort in the end. Steve and Natalie got married on a beautiful farm outside Tel Aviv. The outdoor ceremony was conducted in the Jewish tradition, ending with the breaking of a glass, symbolising the fragility of life, our mortality and the inevitable existence of both sadness and joy. Steve had invited almost 40 INSEAD classmates, which meant that I got to see many of my good friends who I had missed at the reunion in May.
Two days after the wedding my father joined me in Jerusalem, while we were waiting for the official letter to be DHL’d to Tel Aviv. When the letter finally arrived on Thursday 7th of July, I returned to Amman (another 5 hour ordeal) to pick up the car and drive the car back to the border, while my father picked up the letter in Tel Aviv airport and would then meet me on the other side of the border to hand me the letter.
Just before getting to the border, I filled the tank with diesel. Just as I was about to set off again, the car wouldn’t start. This had happened before, but no matter what I tried, the car wouldn’t start. I was under enormous time pressure as the border crossing was likely to take 5-6 hours again, and it was 3 pm in the afternoon and the border was closing at 8 pm. 45 minutes later, desperately, I asked some locals for help, who asked for a hammer and knocked the starter motor, and boom, the car started. Gratefully, I jumped into the car again and set off for the border. The Jordanians, however, were not very cooperative this time around. Adding insult to injury, as I was trying to pass through immigration on the Jordanian side, a bus full of American tourists entered the immigration building right before me. Since the border was about to close and I had many checkpoints ahead of me, I respectfully asked if I could move ahead of the cue, and jokingly offered everyone drinks if I successfully crossed the border. One American tourist then bluntly replied: “I will never accept drinks from someone that’s wearing a Che Guevara short.” Wow.
Long story short, my father handed me the letter on the Israeli side, which fortunately was accepted, and another 6 hours later we made it into Israel. An ordeal I hope to never go through again!
Israel and the West Bank
Israel and the West Bank, even more so than Jordan, was a sensation. I was blown away by Jerusalem, what a fascinating and stunning city, seamlessly blending ancient and modern times. More than 3,000 years old and sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians. Conquered by kings, crusaders and caliphs. There are few cities in the world that stir up so much passion and controversy as Jerusalem, and I couldn’t help but to be swept away by its energy and the tensions, which are palpable everywhere.
I grew up in a Christian family, and while religion was important to my parents, it has never played a significant role in my life, which makes it hard for me to believe that throughout the ages, and to this day, civilisations would fight and kill in the name of religion. Yet after visiting Jerusalem I witnessed how passionately Muslims, Jews and Christians practiced their religions and when both beliefs and sacred objects such as the Dome of the Rock (Jews believe that is where Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac, while Muslims believe that is where the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven) intersect each other, it helped me to understand the source of tensions and conflict.
My father and I spent three days in Jerusalem, and loved the experience, which was overwhelmingly positive. We were hosted by lovely Israeli friends who gave us both a historical and a contemporary perspective of modern-day Israel. Besides the old city, we also visited the Israel museum, home to the Dead Sea Scrolls and a vast Picasso collection, as well as the impressive holocaust museum, Yad Vashem. An experience not to be missed!
For my father and I, traveling through Israel and the West Bank was like walking through a biblical theme park. Besides Jerusalem, we visited the nativity church in Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptised, Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, and the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. We visited castles that were built by crusaders when they conquered parts of modern-day Israel in the 11th and 12th century, we visited magnificent ruins of palaces built by King Herod in Masada and Caesarea, floated in the Dead Sea and camped in the wild. The density of historical events and monuments is beyond belief.
Of course, a visit to Israel and the West Bank also provides a window into the constant source of tensions and conflict that we see in the media. The extreme military presence, as well as the contrast between Israel, which is highly developed, and the West Bank, which is in a dire state, is difficult to ignore. Every conversation somehow includes an opinion about the situation, and it is hard not to have an opinion yourself in such an environment. What makes it hard is that I have friends on both sides, and I respect their views, even though I may not agree with them. For me, however, the friendship is more important than my views on the conflict, and so I tend to stay away from the politics, which in my mind, the way things are going, may never be solved in the foreseeable future.
Our visit to Israel and Jordan went by way too fast, but I’m very happy that I made the decision to visit these two unique countries. Fortunately shipping the car from Haifa to Athens was much easier than from Port Sudan, taking only four hours instead of four days. My father returned to the Netherlands and I made my way to Athens, ready for my next co-pilot and INSEAD friend, Rene van Rappard!