I'm doing a whirlwind tour of the middle east this week in conjunction with a few work commitments. As much as I travel for work, I thought I had the whole process pretty well figured out. Not the case!
I landed in Tel Aviv early last weekend with plans of visiting Eilat, and then popping across the border to see Petra in Jordan.
I planned to take the bus to Eilat. It was a four hour bus ride, but it seemed worth it to get to see Petra that weekend. I've ridden the bus in Israel before. It's not too big of a deal, just a little interview with a guy with a big gun and onto the bus you go. On the way to the hotel from the airport I asked my taxi driver where the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station was and explained my travel plans.
"No", he said, "You don't want to take the bus that will take all day. Take a plane. For $100 it will take you one hour to get to Eilat."
Wow! What a deal! Thanks to my taxi driver I'd just instantly reclaimed six hours of my weekend! I rushed into my hotel, got on the internet, and booked a ticket to Eilat and a hotel room. I hustled back out of the hotel, into a cab and back to the airport.
I got to the airport a bit early and had to wait for security to open up. As I was waiting with everyone else I noticed a guy walking around nonchalantly. Imagine the stereo-typical portrayal of a spy in a recent US movie about the mid-east. That's the guy.
Security finally opened up and I dutifully lined up with everyone else to get my bags x-rayed. Then it was over to a separate little table to be interviewed. No problem, pretty much lines up with riding the bus so far. But here's where things derailed.
In my travels I've begun to take my passport a little less than seriously. No neck pouches, or hidden belt compartments for me, just jam that little puppy in my front pocket and off I go. Yeah... that was a mistake...
I present my wrinkled, rather beat up passport to my interviewer who's first question was "What's wrong with this passport?" I explained that I carried it in my pocket and it got a little beat up that way.
The second question was: "When did you make arrangements for this trip?"
OK, now we're completely derailed. Apparently impromptu airplane travel is frowned on here even more so than in the US. Now, we're playing twenty questions. Imagine the last argument you had with your significant other except you're in an airport and it just doesn't look like you're going to get that passport back! And just like with your S.O. there are no right answers. My interviewers are twenty-something women and all the questions are in your face and rapid-fire. I'm guessing this is designed to irritate someone from a culture that has fairly strict rules regarding women. With me, jet-lagged and on about four hours of sleep, my thoughts are running less along the irritation line and more along the lines of, "She's kind of hot. Oh look at that, dimples when she smiles. I wonder if I can get her number after all this?" We discussed my business, my planning habits, my destination.
"Where are you going?"
"How do you know Petra exists?"
"I saw it in Indiana Jones."
She rolls her eyes, "I understand."
This goes on for a while until we hit the ultimate questions:
"If your business starts on Monday, why have you arrived on Saturday?"
"To get some rest before work."
"Aha! But you're not resting, you're traveling!"
"Ummm, well... You've got me there."
"So, you have no answer?"
"Nope, not to that one."
"Then we have to search you and your bag."
I'm thinking things are probably still OK. I've done this in the States right? Just a little spread'em routine. No biggy. They find a male employee to do the search. I look around for the search area.
Whoops, this is a bit different, I'm being led out of the airport. I'm watching the airport employee on my right lead me out. As soon as we get outside I feel something to my left, look over and... Wow! There's spy-boy on my left. I'm telling you, it's only paranoia if they're not actually out to get you :)
So, into the little search room we go. Once inside, my new handler puts on a rubber glove. At this point I'm thinking I never wanted to go to Eilat that badly! The bus will do just fine! Imagine my relief when we just did the normal states side pat-down! Next comes the wanding. My torso gets wanded and life is looking pretty good. I'm on the downhill side of this thing.
Then, suddenly, my butt beeps! All those grade-school dreams of secretly being the bionic man and not knowing it come back to me. Why is my butt beeping? I reach down into my pants to see what might be the problem and I'm instantly let down. No, I don't have a bionic butt, the staff at Banana Republic once again forgot to take out their theft detection device! I pull the little tab of fabric above the belt line to show my inspector. He explains that seeing it won't be quite enough. I'll need to drop my britches so he can scan my butt separately. We have a problem!!!
"Dude, No! That's a problem!"
"Shit... You picked the exact wrong day for this!"
"Well, you see when I got up this morning I was in kind of a hurry and skipped the whole underwear step. I've got nothing on down there!"
At this point I'm feeling worse for my inspector than for myself. He rolls his eyes, mutters something under his breath and says we have to do it anyway.
And sure enough, my butt's not bionic! Oh well, at least I finally got that lingering question answered. A few more questions, and I'm off to join my flight.
I'm thinking all of this is pretty hilarious. I don't have my laptop with me, so I record some notes for a blog entry in a little sketch pad. I get to about half way through the questioning and doze off.
As soon as I hit Eilat, I check into my room and wonder across the street to buy some underwear. If this happens tomorrow, I'll be prepared!
The next day I make the border crossing into Jordan hop into a cab and I'm off to Petra. The place is every bit as spectacular as I thought it might be. Wow! It's hard to believe it was all carved out of the sandstone, not built, but carved. The entrance is a narrow chasm that is at least forty feet high in places.
The little dots at the bottom of the chasm are people. That gives you a feel for the scale. Another interesting thing. It snows in the Jordanian desert! There was snow on the ground everywhere in the mountains. I never knew!
So, life is good I saw what I wanted to see and I head back to Israel. I grab a little bit of dinner and head for the airport. Where, the first question asked me is, "What's wrong with this passport?"
Here we go again. But this time, I'm feeling pretty confident and prepared! After all, I've got some underwear on this time :)
As expected, the questioning results in a search. Once again I have to drop my britches, but this time I'm prepared. Everything goes smoothly, then my inspector comes out of a room holding my sports coat.
"Why do you need a sports coat to see Petra?"
"You don't, you need a sports coat to eat dinner in Eilat!" I'm feeling good, I've got them this time :)
He then reaches into my sports coat pocket and pulls out two little pieces of paper. "Why have you documented the airport security procedure?"
Ahhhh crap! My brovado is gone. I begin to wonder if the jail in Eilat has wireless so I won't have to miss work. I look up at him and say, "Because it was kind of funny?"
"No, this is not funny! This is an important matter of security! You think we are funny!?"
"No, no, no... I think I made it funny"
"Well, that little part about Indiana Jones maybe?"
I see the tiniest smile crack. Thank God! I've never been so happy to see a smile in all my life! He goes back in the other room, says something in Hebrew, and I hear my other inspector burst out laughing! Apparently they had both read the whole thing.
The short of it? I'm comfortably hanging out in Athens after a spectacular week in Israel.
The moral? Hmmm, I don't know, maybe it's better to be lucky than smart; maybe it's good not to take life seriously? But for sure, just like your mom told you, always, always, always wear clean underwear!