Jerusalem Central Bus Station
Tyrone was a lot street-savvier than me, or at least believed himself to be, so I let him call the shots. In his defense, I did have very little experience with city things like public transportation, and I truthfully preferred trailing behind someone who knew where they were going. This way, I could keep the peace while taking in the scenery.
A true Londoner, Tyrone quite enjoyed engaging in verbal conflict, and, surrounded by Israelis in holiday transit, he was in his element. Currently, he was arguing with the woman at the ticket window about an issue with our bus. We had planned to leave Jerusalem mid-afternoon on a bus to the southern border city of Eilat, a journey which would take about five hours. We would spend the night there and cross the border into Jordan the next morning. The woman informed us taciturnly that our intended bus did not exist and that the next one to Eilat would not leave for another four hours. Though perplexing, this news did not irk me much because this station housed a shopping mall and was located next to one of the best street markets in Jerusalem. Tyrone, however, did not feel the same, and he made this quite clear to the stone-faced woman. “What do you mean it ‘doesn’t exist’?” he asked in a tone of standoffish annoyance that only the British can master. “We bought the tickets.” To my surprise, his complaints appeared to warm her icy demeanor and it was almost as if she was seeing us for the very first time, taking us in with fresh eyes.
“Here’s what you need to do,” she said, voice lowered. “You can get tickets much, much cheaper if you go to Level 1 and buy student passes.” We liked saving money very much, so although this did not solve our predicament, we accepted her advice with gratitude. “I can give you reservations for the next bus so you don’t lose your spot,” she promised, and handed us two receipt-like slips. “Bring these back when you get your pass,” she instructed, and all but winked.
We made our way to Level 1, feeling like we were “in the know.” I couldn’t help but marvel at how decent customer service in Israel was usually presented as an off-the-books favor. As we descended the second elevator, I noticed the absence of Palestinians in this station. The place was positively bustling with tourists and all kinds of Jews traveling for Hanukkah, but I could not pick out a single Arab. I knew that Palestinians had separate bus lines, but I suppose I had expected the Central Bus Station to be, well, central.
Following the ticket lady’s directions, we reached the bottommost level of the station and navigated through the crowd, turning the corner into a Spartan, concrete corridor. On the right side of the corridor was a wall of glass that separated haggard-looking desk workers from a line of people that stretched copiously out the door. However, it wasn’t really a line at all, since, according to my experience so far, Israelis do not “line up” but rather amass and push forward until a bottleneck forces single-file entry. Among this mass, there was at least one irate business man, a very, very old woman (who was not above using her elbows), and a young orthodox mother with a herd of six children under the age of seven. Inside the room, employees sat down with one customer at a time. It appeared that one of them had been arguing with the same man for a long time now, and it was clear that this process was going nowhere fast. I sighed heavily, unsure if I would be able to brave the Israeli equivalent of the DMV….
It took what felt like an eternity, but I finally got my damn bus pass. “We have to push forward,” Tyrone had kept saying, “stay together and push forward or we’ll never make it.” And we did, though more subtly than most. I was still above cutting in front of a mother of six, but I considered the little old lady with sharp elbows fair game. Once inside, the actual process of making the pass took far less time than I had anticipated – probably because I refrained from arguing with the employees. I was issued an official-looking card that resembled a driver’s license and featured a photo of me that could have been a mugshot. I usually smile cheesily in ID photos, but in this one it was apparent that I was not the person I used to be. This was me after three months of Jerusalem: more solemn, more irritable, and less inclined to be messed with. At first, I was startled by how my appearance had changed. I had lost some weight, and my hair had gotten longer; but I looked undeniably older, harder. However, after a while, the photo grew on me. This is what it took to survive Jerusalem. My face was familiar from photos of military Stav and the countless people who pushed by me on the blood-stained sidewalks of Jaffa Street; it was the face that Elham and Anis wore when they were processed through checkpoints and had to answer to teenaged guards through bulletproof glass. Evidently, I was adapting to this place, and for that I was thankful - even proud. I had never before been pushed so far as to reveal any real strength of spirit. Yet, I was also distantly uneasy as I wondered if this was the face I would carry home.
We brought our fresh ID’s and our reservations back to the ticket box. This time, it was a man behind the glass, and he informed us that there was “no such thing” as a ticket reservation. The lady who had helped us before was gone, and it took some hassling to get things sorted out. In the end, we got the hefty discount she had promised, so I suppose it was in our best interest that we had not exploded in response to this vile man. After finally obtaining our hard-won tickets, we killed time people-watching while eating pastries.
A couple hours later, it was time to board the bus, but I realized I had to go to the bathroom. It wasn’t an overwhelming need, but the bus ride was a good four hours long without stops. I told Tyrone I would be quick and approached the bathroom that was directly across from our terminal. Apparently, it was prayer time, because a gaggle of Hasidic men were congregating in the hallway that led to the bathroom, facing the walls and bobbing back and forth. I tried to squeeze through without pushing them, as if I was in some kind of obstacle course with oscillating pendulums. At the end, I was horrified to find that the entrance to the bathroom was blocked by a locked gate that read “Out of Order.” All of the sudden, my need to go increased exponentially and panic welled up within me. I was certain that the bus would wait for no one, even if Tyrone begged on my behalf, and I knew that there was no way I was not going to the bathroom before I got on that bus.
I pushed back through the men (more aggressively this time) and broke out into the terminal. The passengers were just starting to file onto the bus. It looked like a slow process, but maybe not slow enough. I scanned over the heads of the crowd, looking for any sign of another bathroom, but saw nothing. “Excuse me,” spoke a heavy accent from behind me. I turned around to face a young Hasidic man. He was pale and gangly, and his black hat and clothes made him look unnaturally tall. “There is another bathroom downstairs.” It took me a moment to get over the fact that a Hasidic man was talking to me, as my experience so far had shown me that they were not supposed to even look at women. “Come, come!” he beckoned and took off into the crowd with such urgency that I did not question following him. I caught Tyrone’s inquisitive look before I, too, disappeared into the crowd.
I marveled at the absurdity of this situation as I jogged behind the black hat that skimmed over the heads of the crowd. I had never before seen someone walk so fast and with such determination. I felt like I was chasing the rabbit down the hole. The only reason I trusted him was because he was Hasidic, and, at some point, for some reason, I had established in my mind that this meant he was non-threatening.
I caught up with him at the elevator, and we got on. He pressed the bottom floor button, and then stood unreasonably close to me as we descended. There were two other people on the elevator, but his arm pressing into mine through his heavy woolen coat felt strangely violating. As the doors opened, he smiled and nodded toward the bathroom which was only a few feet away. To my growing discomfort, he walked me to the entrance and paid the toll on the gate. I thanked him without looking at him and ran into the nearest stall.
I sighed with relief as I finally went, but was apprehensive as to whether or not he would be waiting outside. He was, and I quickly pressed the “up” button as he grinned down at me. I was thankful when the doors opened almost immediately, but not at all thankful that it was empty. We got on and he leaned into me again, more heavily than the first time. He turned to me and grabbed my cheek. “You are very, very pretty,” he said. His accent was thick and it was an effort for him to say these words. His dark eyes between coiled side-locks looked like those of a starving man gazing upon a meal, and his hand squeezed my face almost painfully. I squirmed under his touch and prayed that the doors would open. They did. I thanked him hastily, and this time it was me who took off with incredible speed. After gaining some distance, I wondered why the hell I had thanked him.
Reaching the terminal, I found Tyrone still waiting. I was extremely relieved when we and the last stragglers boarded the bus, but as I settled into my seat, a feeling of dirty discomfort spread over me which I could not shake, even as the landscape grew arid and barren and the light faded into darkness.
Eilat appeared like an electric oasis out of the darkness of the desert. It had been a long bus ride with squirrelly students, frequent stops to pick up passengers from the middle of nowhere, and no sleep. We pulled onto a lit-up palm tree-lined road that reminded me of Las Vegas. In the distance, lining a shadowy plain that had to be the Red Sea, there was a boardwalk rimmed with neon signs, a few of which were flickering weakly. Across a narrow finger of sea were a few faint lights that were Aqaba, Jordan, and somewhere further out in the sea, where it widened and stretched into infinite blackness, there was Egypt. Continuing on, we passed resort hotels that seemed vacant and sleepy.
It was a short walk from the bus stop to our hostel, Corinne’s. Despite the ridiculous interior design that included dark wood paneling that covered every inch, from floor to ceiling, and a very disconcerting combination of Biblical and Wild West figurines, the rooms were clean enough and our roommates were sleeping soundly. We wanted to see Eilat, so we dropped off our things and headed back out.
It was very quiet outside and we saw no other people. We were unsure how to get down to the boardwalk, which appeared to be the main part of the city, so we went into one of the hotels which lined the street. It was large and nautical-themed, and seemed like it would be quite popular in the summertime. We entered the sliding glass doors into the lobby and were greeted by an otherworldly scene: half of the lobby was occupied by a bar and a dance floor upon which a single family was dancing in psychedelic lights. A very strange band was playing music that was some kind of cross between traditional Jewish folk and disco. They were not very good at all, though the family seemed to be having the time of their lives. There was no sign of anyone else in the hotel besides these folks and the young man behind the front desk. We ripped our eyes away from the scene, just as the mother was beckoning us to join. We asked the man at the desk if he could tell us how to get to the boardwalk. “Of course!” he replied with incredible enthusiasm. His smile was ear-to-ear as he explained to us the quickest route. His friendliness should have been refreshing, but in the current context it was just unnerving.
We thanked him and made our exit, trying not to draw any attention to ourselves lest the family spot us again. “Feel free to stay a while!” he called out from behind us. The sliding doors cut off the music and blue light as they closed. Back in the undisturbed quiet, I breathed in the cool desert air flavored with saltiness and concluded that Eilat in the off-season was a very strange place indeed, though I didn’t dislike it.
The boardwalk, once we reached it, confirmed this sentiment. I have always been intrigued by melancholy places, and a seaside resort town in the midst of winter has a post-apocalyptic quality. There were beach chairs and umbrellas on an artificial beach that looked out over the still, black water, bars that were still open despite only hosting a third of their capacity, dormant carnival games, and a few wandering couples that did not seem to notice the emptiness of this place. We, too, appeared to be one of these wandering couples, but Tyrone and I were two fellow travelers brought together by necessity. We were unalike in most ways and were inclined to annoy each other. Tyrone was often exasperated by my flippant “American-ness” and I was often bothered by his habit of explaining things to me as if I were far less educated than he. I suppose he was older and had attended Oxford, but now and then he would inform me of something so blatantly obvious that I had to ask him if he thought I was stupid. “No,” he would reply in his posh accent that seemed so superior, “I think you are very clever. Dangerously so. ”I'll admit I was flattered by the notion of being “dangerously clever," and so I let his next few patronizing remarks slide until it bothered me again and I would reply with a snarky, “Did you know...?”
Yet, it was not all bad. I believe if you spend enough time with anyone, you grow unbearably sensitive to their idiosyncrasies. Tyrone and I spent a lot of time together, and we had chosen each other for a reason: we were both sarcastic (which helped tremendously in passing the time and avoiding real conflict), and I’d like to think that we were both fairly adaptable people. It also helped that he was male, as this allowed me to travel freely without much worry. We would likely not be life-long friends, but in this time of my life he was a good companion.
As we meandered the boardwalk and took in the sea, we enjoyed discovering a new place together and the camaraderie of knowing that if we did not have each other, we would be entirely alone.