Friday, January 7, 2011

On the road to Israel, Palestine & Jordan

We just got back to Cairo after a trip to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, all overland.  Since these countries are close together, it's like driving around New England, except there are many border crossings and the cultures vary dramatically.  I'll do a series of blog postings about our trip.  This first one is about the ride to the Egypt / Israel border.

We left Cairo at 6:30am.  We'd hired a car to try to simplify things.  (I was still finishing my final exams and term papers so was up all night the night before so it was very convenient to just be able to pile into a car and leave.)   It was very foggy in the early morning mist so visibility was challenging at times but when things cleared up, there was some nice views.  Here's a photo of the mountains outside of Cairo.  If you click on the photo, you can see the houses in this area.
About two hours outside of Cairo, we went under the Suez Canal.  I'd hoped to be able to see boats go through the canal, but the tunnel the road goes through underneath the canal blocks the view except for very tall boats.  (See photos of tunnel below.) 

The Suez Canal is major source of income for Egypt.  One article I read online from 2008 said the canal brought in $487 million in May and $449 million in April.  7.5% of world trade comes through the canal.  For the fiscal year 2006-2007, the canal brought in $4.16 billion, the third highest source of foreign currency after tourism and remittances from Egyptians working abroad.   (These statistics are from

The Canal was built in 1869 at a cost of about $100,000 million (more than double what was originally projected) and triple that amount has been paid for subsequent repairs and upgrades.  According to a 1888 treaty, the canal is open to all countries without discrimination.  The Canal stretches more than 100 miles and connects the Red Sea (at the city of Port Said) and the Mediterranean Sea (at Suez).  The Canal isn't wide enough to allow two boats to pass simultaneously, but there are bays where a boat can pull over to let another pass.  It takes 11-16 hours for a boat to pass through the canal, going at a speed of 8 knots.   There are usually three convoys of boats going through the canal per day, two headed south and one headed north.

When we first arrived in Egypt, I heard on the news that the Canal had had a record day.  On August 17, 2010, 65 ships passing through with more than 3 million tons brought in $18.7 million in profit to Egypt in just one day.

After about two hours, we stopped at a rest stop and had tea.  Cameron did some sprints back and forth away from cars to get out some of his energy.   This was quite a nice truck stop.... the squat toilets were much cleaner than typical truck stops.  The tea was lovely.

About an hour from the border, we came to a canyon like area with beautiful rock formations.  Here are some photos of that.
Photo of us with the taxi driver.

My first view of the Red Sea.

We arrived at Taba around 2:30pm.  Above is the first view of it.  Taba has a interesting and controversial history.  An armistice line from 1949 made it part of Egypt, but then Israel reoccupied the Sinai Peninsula, including Taba, in 1967 after the Six-Day War.  Israel built one of Taba's first big tourist hotels (400 rooms).  Israel claimed that Taba was on their side of the border since it was on the Ottoman side of a border agreed to in 1906 between the Ottomans and Egypt (then under the colonial rule of Britain).  It was not until 1988 that Taba was given back to Egypt by Israel after an international commission composed of five judges (one Israeli, one Egyptian, and three neutral judges) decided that the town rightfully belonged to Egypt.

As part of the handing over of Taba to Egypt, it was decided that foreign tourists would be allowed to come to Taba without a visa for Egypt.  A visa would not be needed until tourists were travelling north of Taba.  This allowed Israelis to come to Taba to vacation without a visa.

In 2004, the Hilton Hotel in Taba was the subject of a terrorist attack, a bombing, that killed 34 people.  The bombing was likely targeting Israeli tourists because of Israel's continued occupation of Palestine.  I think the Hilton is the tall white hotel in the above photo.

Cameron was entertained to see a camel 'parked' and tied up to a palm tree alongside the road.  (See photo below.  You can click on the photo to make it bigger.)

After getting to the Taba border crossing, we were about to pay the taxi driver the first half of our agreed to price (550 Egyptian pounds or $100) with the second half coming when he picked us up on Jan. 6, but he said he thought we instead owed him a much larger amount.  I had written down our agreement because of so many other interactions with taxi drivers and I showed him what was written down, but it didn't matter.  After a lengthy discussion, Jeff gave him an extra 100 pounds and we decided to take a bus back to Cairo rather than hire this taxi again.

We found a group of travelers waiting to cross the Egyptian border.  The guards said the Israel border was closed until 4pm so everyone had to wait until then to pass through.  The borders are set up such that you go through a passport check and get stamped leaving Egypt, then walk a few hundred meters to the Israel border, and go through a passport check there, a baggage search, answer some questions and get stamped to enter Israel.  We did not have to get a visa in advance for Israel since we are Americans.  When it came time for Israel to stamp our passports, we asked for the stamp on a separate piece of paper instead of in our passports since some Arab countries will not let you in if you have an Israel stamp in your passport (e.g., Lebanon and Syria).  We don't have any immediate plans to visit these countries but might try to go to Lebanon before we fly home if we found some cheap flights.

The most eventful thing at the Israel border was that they chose to search the one bag which happened to be carrying all Jeff's and Cameron's yet-to-be-wrapped Christmas presents in.  Cameron saw his presents get pulled out one by one and exclaimed, "There's my stuffed camel!"  Then he saw the little cat statue get pulled out to go with his little Egyptian cat collection.  Then Jeff saw his book, "The History of Maadi" (our neighborhood here) get pulled out.  One by one, all my Christmas surprises were revealed.  I tried to hastily explain to Cameron that Santa had given some presents to me early to bring to Jerusalem since we'd be having Christmas there.  Finally the woman guard caught on to what was happening and tried to tell the male guard to look at the items with his back turned to Cameron, but it was too late.  The male guard even took the smaller stuffed camel to another guard to play for him the little Arabic song it made when you squeezed the camel.  Oh well.  We still had a nice Christmas a couple days later.

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