hello america. hello austin.
this is ramallah calling.
we are here. and what an entrance.
It’s long, but the 29 hours of travel require a special post. here is the story….
we left austin on monday, valentine’s day, after spending 2 nights at a hotel while Faris packed the remainder of our “little home” behind Eileen’s house in Austin.
Pictures of this entire journey are at the bottom of this post.
CHECK IN AUSTIN
at the airport the dismayed ticket agent for united airlines eyed our 6 huge suitcases, 2 car seats and 1 double stroller with annoyance.
As she began check-in she told me with eyebrows knitted that we had 3 bags that were over—way over—the weight limit. yes, i told her, i know. we just couldn’t leave certain things behind. and you know there will be a charge for this? yes, i know. it’s expensive you know….yes I know. this is my whole life here in these bags. and it will not be a short trip so yes i know.
we find that out our 3 plane seats are separated with 2 on one side of the aisle and 1 on the other. the flight attendant grumpily agrees to shift some things and instead of moving all 4 of us to the rear of the very small plane by the bathroom (and I know it will also be more bouncy so I will be more nervous) another passenger volunteers their seat and we are all together. a small but very appreciated miracle.
3 hour flight to chicago, laila awake and waving to everyone. sufyan excited to watch a video. me: nervous because the plane is too small but very busy with my busy laila.
in chicago we have a 5 hour layover. we exit the plane and look for the international terminal (terminal 5) and find we have to actually exit security and take a train to another terminal altogether. we agree that its best to get to terminal 5 first and then settle in to eat a nice meal, change clothes, and let the kids play. but when we get there, the terminal is old, small, and has ZERO food (unless you count twix bars and cellophane sandwiches with questionable meat inside).
I am beginning to feel sick. The travel? the snack food? the nerves? It gets worse and worse until I sit on the floor with my head on my bag and literally go to sleep for 3 minutes at a time until suddenly my head clears and I’m ok again. another little miracle.
Our flight to Amman, via Royal Jordanian Air, leaves at 9pm. An hour and a half after the kids bedtime. we change them into PJs and check in. At check in I have my first culture shock and this while I am still in america. behind the RJ counter everyone is speaking arabic. there is a young ticket agent, another older one, and a man who is pacing and gesturing in big swooping motions and speaking loudly to everyone. he looks like a manager at a restaurant. it’s confusing because i am used to seeing order, and in my world the manager never appears unless there is a problem. but here he is just looking on and giving commands. we are expected, as someone made a call to someone here at RJ and we are given the bulk head as we hoped and we are very grateful.
we board the flight. the kids are tired. the plane is huge.
laila gets a bassinet that clips into the wall in front of me. it looks like a flower basket and is just exactly her length. i KNOW she will not sleep in THAT (this child who has never slept anywhere except my bed). But she does! she goes to sleep in my arms and transfers to the bassinet. this happens over and over for the 11 hour flight to Amman, much to my surprise. we do this for 7 hours of the flight. another miracle.
she does spend about half the flight sleeping in my arms, and I love it because everything is so strange to me and she is like a security blanket. the flight announcements are in arabic and then english. the people around me are speaking arabic or chinese.
Faris and Sufyan sleep about 5 rows back, where there are seats strung together for Sufyan to stretch out in.
Unfortunately Sufyan wakes up sick, tries to throw up and can’t, and then is fine. motion sickness? the terrible food we are feeding him on this catch as catch can travel day? but he’s fine. it passes, another little miracle. Can you imagine the last 4 hours with a vomiting child only to arrive in a foreign place?
and then we are descending into amman. we have flown over nova scotia, paris, italy, greece, and now jordan. i cannot believe i am actually arriving. in jordan. i’ve never even been to mexico.
we exit the plane excitedly, and tired. and we are definitely not in america anymore. we pour out into a largish room with everyone else from the plane and again there is a lack of order. the smell of cigarettes everywhere (no one is smoking, but there is a kind of permanent odor like a bar). in the center of the room is a cashier changing foreign currency to JDs (Jordanian Dinars). there is a cue of travelers forming a long line to a desk that says “visas”. another shorter line says “jordanians”. We are slow on the uptake and get into our line, the visa line, after almost everyone else. The line is sluggish. Sufyan and Laila run around the room with me in tow. Laila waves at everyone, and people’s dour travel-faces light up to see her. Sufyan is talking excitedly to me, and not to anyone else. Especially if they talk to him. We go to the restroom to wash our hands. It is filthy. there is a woman trying to change her baby’s diaper there and there is no changing table and the room is so small we can barely get past each other. she is flustered. we mothers are the same everywhere: we do what needs to be done. She changes that baby as she holds her under the armpits in mid-air, over the sink.
We finally are next up to the visa desk. the uniformed attendants look to be from the military and are seated high above us so that they have to look down at us and us UP to them. It will be the same at the bridge checkpoint. they don’t want our smiles or hellos, just to answer their questions. after the whys and whats we each are directed look into an iris scanner and receive the visa stamp in our passport. my stomach is upset from the cigarette smell. i’m a pansy. clearly this is going to take some adjusting. oh how true that is.
downstairs a porter holds a card with our name on it in english and arabic. our massive bags await. I change clothes (yucky bathroom but nothing compared to what lies ahead) and we exit security and meet Sido outside.
and this is where my poor, tired, confused sufyan loses it. it had to happen someplace. he had just settled into his stroller away from the world and now we are asking him to get out so we can get into our taxi to the Allenby bridge. all this crazy travel with its long flights, weird food, and weirder smells and noises and we are taking his little safe haven away. he let’s us HAVE it. screaming and screaming and screaming. and I don’t mean crying, I mean screaming. to make matters worse, Sido’s brother and his wife are there to meet us and she, the wife, is trying to make sufyan smile. by PINCHING. SUFYAN’S. CHEEKS. and getting right in his face to make funny noises and tousling his hair. If you know anything about Sufyan its that he does not want to be touched by people he knows, much less strangers. He does not even want to be greeted by strangers. And I am in the middle trying to protect my boy and not yell at this woman who is not getting Sufyans VERY obvious cues to back off. Even though I say, “you are making him nervous” she just reaches past my strategically placed shoulders and tries to pinch his cheeks again. I almost screamed at her myself.
We are now 2 taxis, 4 weary travelers, Sido and 2 taxi drivers just sitting there waiting for poor Sufyan to come back to us emotionally. Oh, and the bridge checkpoint closes in 90 minutes.
1 apple juice and 1 new plastic phone from the gift shop in the airport, and we are on our way. Poor Sufyan, his pain was palpable. It was another moment where parenting became more than love and responsibility to me. It became heavy with guilt and doubt. what have I done? what can I do to make it better? and what the hell are we doing here?
the taxi drives us out of Amman (it is night and dark outside) and I can see: boulders, small dry hills, more than a few cars pulled over with stranded drivers. stretches of nothing but dirt and darkness punctuated by occasional lonely looking convenience stores lit up like neon glass boxes filled with glowing soda bottles and candy. graffiti in arabic. And then we reach the Allenby Bridge checkpoint.
Just outside this checkpoint there is a makeshift looking town that I suppose rose up to serve the needs of people trying to get across this bridge. there are more tiny stores that look put together with debris from some other larger building. there are open fires and men talking and drinking beside them. there is graffiti, neon, gleaming produce and trash everywhere. trucks with ornate hand painted designs rumble past. Think of movies of 3rd world countries that you’ve seen. This is that.
At the bridge, we pull through the front gates where some guards peer in as we pass. I think the driver and Sido say something to them out the window. I don’t know. I’m so lost at this point. We get out, porters get our bags, there is a lot of talking and Faris is busy orchestrating something and I have Sufyan and Laila. Luckily there is a whole flock of little birds that look like swallows nesting in the awning above the parking area. They swoop and chitter and S and L love them. S will not greet anyone, though all the drivers and porters try. No one gets an inch with him until one large taxi driver says the magic word: chocolate. and hands sufyan 2 candy bars.
stop and think about that. Good for the driver for being resourceful and good for Sufyan for responding. But what a culture shock again to see that here it is ok to 1) try and try to get a child to talk to you and
2) give a child food without his mom’s permission and
3) that food is chocolate.
and thank god for the chocolate though, because it became a handy negotiating tool. we have elected to pay to go across the bridge VIP. Which I guess means we paid a voluntary extra fee to not have to go through certain lines et cetera. Is that a bribe? this room we are escorted to is round and has chairs agains the wall facing one lonely TV which is blaring some ugly soap opera about a teen getting stabbed by a bear. or something equally Fellini-esque. Also there is a man handing out small, ornate glasses of hot black coffee (palestinian coffee with cardamom in it and no milk or sugar). Sufyan and Laila dance, play, and we adults are in the midst of what to me is a very important negotiation. we are asking the israelis NOT to separate us. Meaning the Israelis would normally want to—–
wait. let me first explain that the bridge has 2 sides. The Jordanian side and the Israeli side. A traveler first enters the J side, goes through some process, and then is driven to the I side for another process. Only special cabs can approach the J side, and another cab then takes you to the I side and yet another will take you from the I side into your destination.
—-ok. so that’ the Allenby bridge checkpoint.
normally the Israelis would separate me from the palestinians right away because I am American. and to the Israelis the kids and of course Faris are palestinian. This is not ok with me. I will not be separated from my children for this bizarre paranoia. I have arrived with a doctor’s note about Laila’s need for her mama and her extreme stranger anxiety. I quickly learn that no one gives a shit about my doctor’s note and we have to send a go between to ask the Israelis their permission to allow us to stay together. By the grace of all the Gods, we are granted that permission after some back and forth with this man serving as a go between. Laila and Sufyan are blissfully unaware and spend this 30 minutes or so playing in the round VIP lounge with me.
Sido tries to prep me for what to say to whom when we reach the I side of the bridge. I am so confused, I can’t even picture what he is talking about. A special agent will be there for only me? I tell her something about just visiting Palestine? I immediately tell her that I am here with my kids and husband? Will she separate us there? no one knows. With a smile, everyone shrugs and says its in the hands of the Israelis.
We get in our taxi, together, and drive to the other side. The actual river Jordan we are crossing is so anti-climactic I didn’t even see it. I am holding a squirming Laila (no car seats in the taxi! It feels so odd and wrong to not have them in car seats it wouldn’t be any worse to find out I had forgotten my pants or something). And then we get to the Israeli side.
Oh. My. God.
The first thing: there are some soldier type young people shouting something in Arabic to us. Sido and Faris are responding. We are a bit confused, standing there together on a sidewalk at night at a hostile check point, as to where to go. And we figure it out just as this HUGE ken-doll looking Israeli guy swaggers up to us. He is just there to intimidate us. Around his neck is an AK-47 on a long cord that makes it dangle at his waist. it looks like a macabre necklace. his hands are on his hips, and I swear he has the smallest blue eyes I’ve ever seen. He looks like a pit bull crossed with superman. And he is asking us dumb questions designed to pull the rug out, something about where Faris learned to speak arabic if he just came from America and did Sido teach him arabic? and I am just smiling and wishing him away. he goes away, we go inside. (do I need to mention how upsetting it was to have a gun like that just hanging there right there RIGHT THERE by my children?)
inside on the right in front of us there is a conveyer belt to lay your personal items on like at an airport scanner, and on the left a young woman behind glass gets my passport. they are polite enough. a little eye rolling when I don’t understand something about getting Laila out of her Ergo. I hold her and walk through a metal detector. Taking Laila out releases her little social self to wave at anyone. And she catches the eye of 2 young guards getting off shift for the night. They fawn over her! They wave and coo and ask her name. She smiles and flirts. It relaxes everyone.
Then I meet my “personal assistant”. She is curt. She says in a thick Hebrew accent that she is informing me of the procedures at this side of the bridge. I try to follow what the hell she is saying but it’s hard. And I stutter and stumble in my words to her…I am so afraid of someone telling me that Laila and Sufyan will have to separate from me that it’s all I can think about and I cannot really follow her words. I say, “are you asking…” and immediately I know I’ve said the wrong thing. She cuts me off. “No. I am not asking. I am telling you the procedure on this side of the bridge.” ok. She walks me into the next room with Laila, Sufyan, Faris and Sido still by my side. The room is like the DMV…in appalachia. A lot of chairs, rails to form cues in, and a bank of about 5 bullet-proof glass windows with holes to slide passports through to waiting guards set high above us so we have to look up as we speak to them. I am to go to window 12 and so and so will be right there. There is practically NO ONE else at the bridge tonight. This is so unusual, I am told. Usually the bridge is busy and uncomfortable with long waits, crying babies, and lots of cues to stand in. Tonight it is empty, calm, almost as anti-climactic as the River Jordan itself. The person at window 12 turns out to be kind, young, and fairly easy to understand. Our business in Palestine creates some confusion and it takes some time for the Israelis to understand what it is we are doing and what stamp to put on our visas, but eventually (and without ever being separated) we are allowed to exit through the turnstiles to gather our luggage and take another taxi to…home. I am given a 3 month visa and permission to travel to Israel should I want to (this is a discretional stamp that the guard at the window could choose to give or deny me).
Just before this is all over, someone yells “LAILA! LAILA!” and my baby girl looks up to see the guards she had flirted with earlier who are now smiling and waving and showing her off to another guard and saying how pretty she is! Well, I didn’t expect that. Another miracle.
We leave. I am elated! The worst is over—or so I thought. So I thought. There is still the cab ride to Ramallah. And for me, my fellow mama friends, this is the scariest part of the entire trip.
SCARY TAXI THROUGH THE CANYON
We load up. We begin to put the car seats in place and then realize they won’t fit and still allow us to get into the taxi WITH our children. So we have to take the 1 hour ride to Ramallah with our kids in our laps. At night. In a country notorious for crazy driving. I take a deep breath and hold on to Laila and seat Sufyan beside me. I lock the door beside him. We are in Jericho now, the lowest point below sea-level in the world.
Our driver stops at an T intersection. He makes a call and finds out that one direction, the main way to Ramallah through Qalandia check point, is very busy tonight with long waits. Al-Mu3raja’ is the other way in, around the check point but on a back road. He consults Sido, and Sido tells him to take the back road.
Al-Mu3raja’ means something like the winding path and it is, to my surprise!, a narrow road that winds upward from Jericho 1000 meters along a steep canyon wall through the Judean Hills to Ramallah. It is probably the most breathtakingly beautiful drive in the world (this is not entirely lost on me)…unless you have just traveled 28 hours and have 2 kids without seat belts or car seats and 500+ lbs of luggage in the back of a mini-van taxi and its the dark of night and you are a stranger in a strange land. I can see by the headlights that the canyon, the wadi, is very deep and the walls are steep and covered by scraggly trees and rocks. there is guardrail only 1/2 the time or less and the rest of the time the road just drops off to darkness. The driver is hauling ass. We ask him to slow down. He does. And then he speeds up again. my knuckles are white and Laila is climbing down and up and squirming. Suddenly Sufyan announces he has to go pee. And there is no room to pull over with cliff on one side and canyon on the other. But after a couple of minutes a small area on the canyon side opens up and we pull over and Sufyan pees on the side of the road. We get back on the road and 10 minutes later he has to poop. Which for S at this point means in a diaper. We cannot pull over, we are deep into the cliffs, and S begins to cry and say please Baba help me poop. I need da potty. I need da bathroom. and he is crying and we are scrambling to find a diaper. All we can find is one of Lailas, which he is mad about, and my heart is breaking once again for my little man in a sea of strangeness. what have we done? I think. Faris struggles a diaper onto Sufyan while the taxi bumps along over hills and Sufyan is crying. His belly hurts. Then all at once he is asleep in Faris’s arms and Laila is asleep in mine.
We enter a small town, Taybeh, and the limestone houses are quaint looking as they line the road. I see limestone steps, wrought iron banisters, potted plants. Up and down some more hills (these towns are built right into the sides of the wadi) and we enter Ramallah.
A flurry of lighted stores, coffee shops, groceries, and more steep hills and we are headed to our new home on Al-Tireh neighborhood.
I had expected the moment we walked into the house to be otherworldly, walking into the house I’d been staring at pictures of for months. I guess it was, but it was also late and I was totally exhausted and sort of numb. And so we stumbled into the house, wandered around and got lost in the rooms and finding our way back to the kitchen and front door and figuring out which bathroom was which…
and we are here.
We made it.
flight to Amman
here is the sticker that was all over our luggage showing we paid the “VIP” fee…
Gardens Super Market. Our neighborhood grocer. Well, one of them. This is the nearest one of a decent size. It stocks literally every kind of item, though limited choices of each. You can get tea, pots and pans, barbie-type dolls, lightbulbs and spaghetti sauce for example.
View of Ramallah from somewhere…the reason this is here is for you to see the buildings. This is how people are housed here. Mostly what I have seen are these large apartment buildings made of local limestone. There are of course free standing houses, but they are very expensive and seemingly rare and the only ones I’m aware of in my limited time here are new.
looking up the street from my gate. Ramallah is hills and more hills.
We found a playground with the help of a fellow expat mom.
sunset view from the top of our street. if you view this pic full size it’s incredible. note the green spire of the mosque in the center lower right. We hear the call to prayer 5 times a day if we have our windows open. Its louder in town. really beautiful. What a place this is.
and by the way, those colors are not a product of my iphone’s camera. they were there for the naked eye, too