Page 13 Cartoons

A day in the life of a MidEast border-crossing junkie

March 19, 2009

In these days of borderless Schengen areas and expressways funneling cars across the U.S.-Canadian border at blazing speeds, the prospect of crossing an international border on foot seems more than a little quaint. Last April, I did so twice in one day. I haven’t felt the same way about the power of my own two feet since.
I woke up in the early morning to the sight of the moon suspended above in a hazy gray-blue dawn. Samih, a Bedouin from Petra, Jordan, slept nearby. His donkey, thrilled to be unsaddled, grazed quietly on a small patch of desert scrub, gearing up for another day of hauling tourists three times his weight up and down the famous Nabataean trails. I nudged my travel companion, Justin, awake. It was time to move on.
I woke Samih and thanked him for three days of canned sardines, fire-baked pita, and back-of-the-neck sunburns as Justin pressed a few wrinkled dinars into his hand. I untangled the rope connecting my backpack to the donkey’s saddlebags and yanked it out in a cloud of red dust.
We staggered into the Bedouin village, beating the sunrise. We had followed vague leads—“I heard abouts” and “I think you cans” abounded—into our illegal Bedouin camping adventure, and now we had to follow them out.
Running after a school bus of giggling Bedouin adolescents led us to a dented mini-van bound for Aqaba, which dropped us off in a parking lot somewhere close to the Jordan-Israel border.
We set off on foot with nothing but a vague idea of the direction to the border. Luckily, three busloads of Indonesian Holy Land tourists soon passed us by, pointing the way.
At the border station, I left Justin to elbow his way through a group of tour guides wielding stacks of passports like weapons and swarming around the passport control windows. I searched for a restroom, a novelty I hadn’t seen since we’d left Amman. As I wandered, I glanced across a chicken-wire fence into Israel.
Ribbons of Arabic lettering dissolved into clunky chunks of Hebrew script; a trail of diapers, crinkled food wrappers, and blown-out tires discarded on the side of the road evaporated into clean Israeli asphalt. I saw air conditioners hanging out of every window of Israeli border control and wondered whether the Jordanian customs officer stamping all those passports in the sweltering heat noticed how they taunted him in his heavy, sweat-stained uniform.
Soon enough, two tiny black-and-white stamps granted us permission to move freely between Aqaba and Eilat, between two hostile countries that were at war not long ago.
But despite the differences, on the Israeli side we found ourselves in much the same position as before: lacking transportation and with another border to cross.
We walked on the side of the highway until a shared taxi pulled up alongside our pathetically dirty forms; the driver, cigarette perched on the edge of his lip, opened the door and gestured impatiently.
Ten minutes later, we arrived at the Egypt-Israel border. The sherut taxi door creaked open and we stumbled off, right onto the edge of the Red Sea’s clear blue water. Thinking of nothing but the showers we hadn’t had for days, we abandoned our bags and made for the water.
Treading water, I marveled at the dusty-red desert mountains surrounding me on three sides. Jordan, Israel, Egypt; Aqaba, Eilat, Tabaa; and me, suspended in between them. I floated on my back, letting the swells wash away layers of dirt, twirl my hair around and fan it out, seep into my ears and between my toes. Bliss, country-less bliss.

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