Day 12, The Bomb Scare at the Israeli Border

As Sara and I sat on a curb just inside the Israeli border waiting for our new friends to make it through their interrogation by the border guards, the sirens at the checkpoint suddenly sounded, a female voice barked out commands over the loudspeaker in Hebrew, the border gate slammed shut and a man ran across the driveway, gun in hand.

We had already made it through the checkpoint and were fully inside Israel, but our friends, Mike and Maya, had been stopped and pulled into a little room for further questions.  Mike had warned us that this might happen and that we should continue on as if we did not know them, which we had done.  Now, Sara and I looked at each other and she asked, "So, what exactly did Mike say he did for a living again?"

There was a lady sitting next to us on the curb, so I asked her what the woman had said over the loudspeaker.  "I think they have discovered a bomb inside the building."  Oh.  Um, OK.

Our original plan was to travel from Egypt to Jordan via a ferry, but our new friends talked us in to taking the overland route through Israel.  It wasn't difficult to convince us, as we are always up for a new stamp in the old passport.

The four of us took a bus up the coast to Taba, the northernmost town in Egypt on the Red Sea, for the crossing to Eilat, Israel.  We were dropped off at the bus station, which was walking distance to both the border and the beach.  Since we had a few hours to spare before we felt it was necessary to cross the border, we decided to walk to the beach and found a nice access road right next to the Movenpick Hotel.

As we walked down this road, Mike told us stories of the recent bombing, right here in Taba.  On October 7, 2004, terrorists bombed the nearby Hilton Resort and killed 34 people.  Up until that moment, the entire area was quickly becoming a popular tourist destination for Israelis and others.  The bomb effectively killed this and the after-effects can still be seen all along the coast from Taba all the way to Dahab in the form of nearly completed resorts that will, most likely, never be finished.  One can debate whether or not this is actually a good thing, keeping the seaside free from development, but one cannot debate the terror felt by the victims that evening and the helplessness felt by the rescue teams standing across the border in Israel, watching the flames.

The irony here is that the Egyptians actually allowed the Israeli firefighters and rescue workers to cross the border that night to help with the disaster relief.  The very act of terrorism, seeking to divide the countries, actually brought them together for one unprecedented evening, when all animosity between bitter enemies was forgotten and they desired solely to help one another.

Once we reached the beach, we found that we were alone, save for a few buildings and picnic tables, whereas the next beach over, a few hundred yards or so at the Movenpick, had a few dozen families playing in the water and enjoying the sun.  Mike and Maya opted to change into bathing suits, while Sara and I just went in the water up to our knees.  We were all enjoying the day when suddenly we were joined by two young Egyptian men.

They seemed very friendly, but we had fallen for this before, an act of kindness, followed by a whammy in which we were parted with a significant amount of money.  When they offered to bring us drinks, we politely declined.  One of them kept trying to talk to us (without knowing any English), while the other disappeared.  It was all very awkward, when the first man reappeared with four sodas.  Apparently, he didn't understand English either.  "How much for each," I asked.  The man held up six fingers.  "Six pounds?  Holy crap, that's expensive."  I did not feel like arguing, so I paid him.  He looked at me funny, actually like I wasn't too bright, and handed me back most of my money.  "Oh.  Six pounds for all of them."  Now I got it.  The four drinks cost us $1.20 total.  Now this was the pricing I had been looking for the entire trip...and no haggling.

We still felt a bit uncomfortable with the two guys just hanging out ogling Maya in her bikini, so after about a half an hour of this we decided it was getting late and it was time to pack it up and make our way across the border.  As we were packing, a third man came up to us, speaking perfect English, "Why are you leaving?  Was someone not nice to you?  Was it something we said?  Please don't go.  Stay and enjoy the beach."  We assured him that there was nothing wrong, we just needed to get going.

The whole situation made me feel like I was in an old Twilight Zone episode and if we stayed much longer, we might never leave.  As we walked back down the path to the road, I couldn't help but say, "Man that was weird."

As we approached the Israeli border, Mike began to prep us.  "They're probably going to give me a hard time because of my occupation.  One of my coworkers was stopped here for three hours a couple of weeks ago.  If that happens, you guys just keep moving and pretend you don't know us.  We'll meet you on the other side of the gate inside Israel.  It might be a while, but we should get there eventually."

Sara and I went first, trying to be as friendly as possible.  All of the border agents looked like they could be college students in the U.S.  They were not nearly as intimidating as the Egyptian border guards, all seasoned men, looking gruff and unfriendly, but ultimately cordial and quick to wave you on.  The Israelis, an even mixture of men and women, looking young, fit and healthy were ultimately very strict, unsmiling and quick to delay you for the ever-so-slightest perceived offense.

After sending my backpack through the x-ray machine, I was pulled to the side to unpack it.  Apparently there was something inside that they didn't like, so together, we emptied it, all of it, x-rayed it two or three more times to make sure that it was empty, and determined that the extra set of AA batteries that I was carrying for my flashlight was serious cause for alarm.  Funny, because later in the trip, on my return through Germany, the very same flashlight would get my bag re-inspected there as well.

During my delay, Mike and Maya managed to get ahead of us in the process, but as we were moving towards the exit, they were seated on a bench outside a small interrogation room.  As we passed Maya rolled her eyes and waved her hand ever so slightly to signal us to keep going.

We took up a seat on the curb outside of the gates and had been sitting there for about thirty minutes when the sirens went off.  There was a flurry of activity inside the compound, but on our side, everyone seemed unfazed.  We decided that it was probably nothing to worry about, so we sat bravely in our spot, waiting and wondering if Mike and Maya were really some secret spy team that had finally been caught.  Would we be involved in some international incident, brutally tortured by the Mossad (the Israeli version of the CIA) with our release negotiated personally by Bill Clinton?  I was getting excited, what a blog post that would be!

It was about 5 pm, so we decided that we would give them three hours to come out.  At 8pm we would leave and make our way to Jordan on our own.  I mean friendship only goes so far, right?  Well, shortly after all of this, the sirens stopped and the gates reopened.  False alarm.  Another thirty minutes went by and Mike and Maya emerged with all of their fingernails intact.  It turns out they weren't spies after all.  It seems that Maya had been to Morocco before and this had raised red flags.  At least she wasn't carrying any batteries or we might still be there waiting.  Apparently, the bomb scare was a result of an abandoned bag in the building, but it ended up just being an abandoned bag.

We caught a taxi and made our way into town.  Since we were just passing through, we only had time for one meal in Israel.  If you have read some of my earlier posts, you know that I have been to McDonald's in every country I have ever been to (except Ecuador and I had to settle for McPollo's in Colombia), so I managed to talk everyone in to going to the McDonald's at, of all places, the Mall.  We were definitely back in the first world again.

After that gut bomb, we got back in a taxi and headed to the Jordanian border.  If you have ever seen any of the old black and white Cold War movies showing the Berlin border crossing, you can picture this particular crossing as well.  In the old movies, there are two sets of fences and gates, probably two or three hundred yards apart on a very open plain, with nothing in between but a small, two lane road.  In the movies, the spy escaping from the East runs between the borders and inevitably gets shot by the bad guys and falls in a heap at the feet of his girl/handler/fellow spy.

This was the same.  Sara and I passed through the Israeli gate and then walked, all alone, only the two of us, down this desolate road, approaching the Jordanian gate some two hundred yards away, with three armed guards watching us the entire way.  We looked back and the Israeli guards were also watching us.  It was eerie to say the least.  I kept waiting for the shot, but, well, of course they didn't shoot us.  After all, they still had Mike and Maya, international spies, who would be coming along in about five minutes.

On the other side, we all regrouped and the four of us caught a taxi for the two hour ride to Wadi Musa, the town outside of Petra, our final stop on this amazing journey through ancient history.

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