A trip to the MIddle East Takes an Unexpected Turn
Working with Out Of Office travel company in London to develop our itinerary, we planned a four-night stay in the city of Jerusalem, capital of Israel and a religious center of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. The stay included a side trip to the West Bank’s Bethlehem and Jericho.
Next, crossing the border to Jordan, our four-night plan included swimming in the Dead Sea at Ishtar, exploring the ancient city of Petra, and “glamping” in the Wadi Rum Protected Area desert, before returning to Tel Aviv for four nights.
Afterwards, a flight to Istanbul would unite us with four American friends where we would all board a Viking cruise ship for a week visiting ports in the Eastern Mediterranean region.
Little did we know our trip would be upended by the unimaginable.
Starting out in Jerusalem, a Miraculous Melting Pot
Our October 1 Jerusalem arrival coincided with the week-long Jewish high holiday of Sukkot that calls on Jews in Israel to make a pilgrimage to the city to celebrate nationhood, spirituality, and the harvest. Jerusalem’s narrow streets, lanes and walkways teemed with celebrants and their large families. The Old City, with its Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian Quarters, appeared to embody peaceful coexistence among adherents to the three great monotheistic world religions, despite internecine doctrinal and cultural struggles on a broader scale.
Jerusalem’s hilly topography requires vigilance in navigating ever-present steps and the slippery foot-polished granite walkways to visit iconic religious sites: the Western Wall and Temple Mount of Judaism; al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock of Islam; and Christianity’s Thirteen Stations of the Cross and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We swam through a sea of black hats and suits, burqas and hijabs, and clergy robes and habits (and police with semi-automatic guns!) as we made our way among the sites with our knowledgeable guide Shay.
Rick’s older cousin Myron moved to Israel decades ago, became an Orthodox rabbi, and developed a huge internet following. His widow Esther lives in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter. She invited us to visit her and her son Michael and his family who were visiting from Tel Aviv. We joined them for lunch on her second-floor deck to celebrate Sukkot under the sukka, a traditional temporary shed erected for the holiday.
What a privilege to catch a glimpse of the life of this dynamic poet, writer, teacher, and photographer. Esther waxed passionately how the Jews and Arabs live peacefully together in the Old City. Little did anyone know that in two days that paradigm would explode.
horror strikes Israel as we make our way to Jordan
Shay picked us up at our hotel and headed into the Israeli-occupied West Bank, a Palestinian Territory, on our way to the border with Jordan, passing through two checkpoints. He dropped us off at the Israeli border. We boarded a shuttle bus, where the driver collected our passports, an unusual task for a bus driver. We crossed what seemed like a “no-man’s land” that wound through scrub, over the small Allenby Bridge spanning the very narrow Jordan River. He pulled into the parking lot of the Jordanian immigration and border control.
Once there, the driver and an Arab passenger engaged in a dispute over her paperwork to enter the country. Ten of us on board were captive to this issue for fifteen minutes until the driver resolved the problem with immigration officials.
A taxi driver with a sign containing our names picked us up for a short one-mile drive outside the complex to another car, where YaYa, our excellent Jordanian driver for the next few days, met us and headed to our Dead Sea accommodations. Altogether, it was a complicated and perplexing border crossing that put us both on our guard.
October 7: We kicked off the following morning floating on top of the salt-saturated Dead Sea (you just can’t sink), covered in rejuvenating mud. YaYa picked us up at noon and soberly told us the shocking news of the Hamas invasion of Israel from Gaza. Although shaken, we felt safe for the time being in Jordan; this Muslim country and Israel share a long border, good diplomatic relations, and precious water resources.
As the crisis grew and the horrors of the attack emerged, Israel closed its eastern borders. We realized a return to Tel Aviv was not possible and potentially dangerous. We had to quickly pivot to make alternate plans.
A rapid change in plans
Enter the Out Of Office staff, who contacted us immediately and moved into action to alter our itinerary. They helped us select a new destination––Istanbul––and made new flight reservations, hotel accommodations, and airport transfers. In turn, Out of Office worked with their local on-the-ground Israeli company OUTstanding Travel on transfer details. Within several hours, Out Of Office confirmed our exit plans from the Middle East.
That evening Rick contacted Esther in Jerusalem to check on her welfare. Since the Hamas invasion occurred on Saturday, Judaism’s sabbath day, she had not turned on her television or opened any electronic devices. She was unaware of the events.
Subsequently, she reported one son and three grandsons were called to the Reserves. She also said she heard distant “booms,” and a few rockets landed in South Jerusalem, with no injuries reported.
Jordan provides stark beauty far from the rest of the world
Three more days spent in Jordan’s relatively remote areas relieved our tension and initial worry. We engaged with the country’s rugged and beautiful landscapes of colorful mountains, outcroppings, cliffs, and occasional wandering camels and herds of goats in this Bedouin region. Both the ancient city of Petra, with its world famous and often photographed Treasury, and the stark wilderness of the Wadi Rum Protected Area desert are located in southern Jordan near the Saudi Arabian border. Brilliant sunshine and crystal blue skies illuminated the landscape’s drama.
At 8:00 am on October 9, YaYa picked us up from the Wadi Rum desert camp and drove three hours to the airport of Jordan’s capital Amman. At passport control, we were pulled aside to meet with a supervisor to explain why our passports lacked a stamp that would show we legally entered Jordan four days previously. Apparently, the official failed to stamp our passports when we crossed from Israel. After several minutes of back-and-forth explanation, they approved our Jordan exit.
We boarded a 1:30 pm Turkish Airways flight out of the region, as the situation with Gaza rapidly declined. The plane’s pilot made a large arc around the conflict zone, adding an hour to the 2-1/2-hour flight.
Five hours later, we checked into the Tan Hotel in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet District, the Old City. Two beers and a tasty Turkish dinner at Massa’s sidewalk café followed our audible sighs of relief. The following day, we watched news videos of massive pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Amman.
We felt we made it out just in time.
The importance of Trip pre-planning
While this crisis was an extraordinarily unusual disruption in anyone’s travel plans (and a horrific regional event in unimaginable ways), we are forever grateful to the very capable staff of Out Of Office (yea, Maria and Jaike!) who worked all weekend to make the changes happen for a Monday departure.
Ironically, before we left for this holiday on September 30, I published a blog post about the virtues of working with a travel company that enjoys a top reputation in the industry and has connections to capable local agencies to support travelers. Little did we realize how that important step of trip pre-planning would play out so critically for us.