Crossing the Border in Jerusalem
Crossing border checkpoints in Israel can be nerve-racking. Doing so with a taxi driver you have never met makes it even more so.
This was the first time I had traveled outside of the United States. I chose Israel and I knew this was not the first country of choice for American travelers. This was the first of two trips I made there in a two year period. On this trip, I had come alone.
I had been asked by many friends and coworkers why I was going there out of all the places I could visit. The assumption being it is dangerous and anyone who goes there is at risk of being blown up at a bus stop.
I was going as part of a group organized by a talk radio host who was sponsoring the tour and I knew we would be getting special access to sites that regular run-of-the-mill tour groups do not.
As a single traveler, my hotel room was booked with another man from the group. He was from Los Angeles and was really into photography. I had just purchased a Nikon D70 and this was going to be my first opportunity to use it. My roommate also used Nikon, albeit a much nicer model.
Because our arrival was so late at night, there was little time for much other than the dinner provided by the host. It was the beginning of Shabbat and the city was quiet. The elevators in the hotel were on a Shabbat schedule, meaning they stopped automatically on every floor as they went up and down. Passengers jumped on and off as needed to get where they needed to be. This was a slow process but it allowed time to talk to hotel guests and meet new people.
Since the next day was Saturday and it was still the middle of Shabbat, we had a free day scheduled to do as we please. My roommate wanted to go outside and walk around taking pictures and I thought I would tag along.
There was a short line of taxis in front of the hotel. We briefly walked a block or two and wandered back to the front of the hotel. There was an Arab driver standing there and he offered to take us to any sites in or around the city. Knowing we would be visiting a lot of famous places on the tour, I didn’t want him to take me to any of the same sites I would be visiting in coming days. But not knowing the area, I really didn’t know where to go or what to see.
The driver was an Arab Israeli and knew the bible well. Well, he at least knew it better than I do, which might not be saying much. The first stops on his whirlwind tour were a few places around the Mount of Olives.
I saw some of the historic cemeteries, including the cemetery where Oskar Schindler is buried. Although it made sense, I didn’t know that Schindler was buried in Israel and was something I was glad the driver had mentioned. This was quite amazing to me considering Schindler was a member of the Nazi Party. His grave is in a Christian cemetery and is clearly marked for visitors to find; his tombstone marked with rocks rather than flowers, as it is customary with Jews.
My taxi driver waited patiently at each stop and was ready to take me on a journey once I was done at Schindler’s grave. He was very interested in showing me some parts around the city of Jerusalem.
He pulled off the side of the road and encouraged me to take photos of neighborhoods that were fenced to separate the Arab neighborhoods from the Jewish neighborhoods. This was at the time Israel had built the permanent security wall throughout the city.
As we continued to drive, he shared stories of violence along the border. He pointed out concrete barriers along the road that are used to block sniper bullets fired at drivers on the highway. He also pointed out a particular house on a hill overlooking a checkpoint. Here is where gunfire is exchanged with soldiers, he stated nonchalantly.
Before it registered in my mind, we were approaching a checkpoint and headed to the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. We were quickly waved through by the soldiers before we even came to a complete stop.
The other side of the border checkpoint felt different. There were cars parked along the street and a bus waiting for passengers to arrive back from the Israeli side. We stopped and some happy Palestinian kids sold us strong Turkish coffee on the side of the road.
The expedition to this side was brief but it gave a glimpse of life on the other side of the wall. A regional farmer rode his donkey up the street as if cars did not travel on this particular road. People carried personal possessions in plastic bags, rather than duffel bags or backpacks.
Heading back to the Israeli side of the border, we were stopped by the guards. The taxi driver asked me if I wanted photos with them. I shrugged, not thinking it would be possible. He told the soldiers I was a U.S. Marine and I wanted a photo with them. They were quick to oblige his request as the driver snapped a shot with my camera.
This visit in 2006 was not only safe, it was memorable, thanks to my personal guide. As it turned out, my roommate wasted the day in the hotel. I spent $100 on my personal tour and I felt like it was worth every penny I had spent that day. On my third visit to Israel, I hope to venture deeper into the West Bank and visit more of the landmarks that lie on the other side of the border fence.