Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Remembrances of the Holy Land (Adieu USA)

PHOTO: Dave Kim
The morning of April 8th (2008) couldn't come soon enough. Had it really been over a year since ReGeneration announced its latest pilgrimage would be to Israel?

We were supposed to arrive at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) by something like 4am. Sounds really early, but I'd been used to getting up about 5am-ish for the job I had at the time and, truthfully, I pretty much stayed up all night packing anyways.

By the time my sister and I arrived, a good dozen people were already hanging around the United Airlines check-in area. After awhile my sister said her good-byes and we got into a rather long line.

Nobody seemed to move for the longest time, and I started wondering if we were going to make our flight. We did, including those that were running really late.

We pulled away from the gate and slowly made our way out to the Departure runway only to queue up behind several planes. After a minute, or so, we made that final left-hand turn onto the end of the runway. The pilot sat there for about 15 seconds before the engines started to roar.

For those that have never flown before, it's an interesting sensation. There's a huge amount of noise and vibration as the flight crew fires up the engines. Despite that you roll forward slowly, picking up speed exponentially. With the back wheels still rumbling down the runway, the nose pitches up to a fairly steep angle.

All of a sudden the rumbling stops as you the plane climbs into the sky. At this point your body experiences an eerie sensation as the engine whine can still be heard, but there's a floating feeling.

When I used to travel back East for business, my modus operandi was to stuff in my ear buds, crank up the mp3 player and wait for the flight attendants to bring around the complimentary miniscule bag of pretzels (or nuts) and half glass of soda.

After consuming the Food in hand, I'd shut my eyes (usually about the Sierra Nevada mountain range) and fall asleep. Generally, I'd wait up somewhere over the Mid-West, only to nod back to sleep before waking up a few minutes before landing. The routine made a long flight not seem so long.

This behavior also had the added benefit of not having to talk for six hours to a total stranger you've been stuck next to. On this flight I was sitting next to a senior citizen.

I happened to wake up some place over Northern Quebec, but couldn't fall back to sleep. My neighbor was really sweet as she tried nicely to strike up a conversation with me. I decided I couldn't just sit there and ignore her. She shared about how she was going to visit her son's family in New York.

When I shared that our church group was going to Israel her face lit up, saying how that must be so exciting. We really didn't talk religion itself, more so about traveling, safety in the Middle East and church in general.

As the plane dropped over Jamaica Bay, I actually felt a little sadness that our conversation was ending.

It had been about six and a half hours since leaving SFO. Up until this point, that had been about the longest time I'd ever been stuck in an airplane, not counting one December flight which had major delays due to a plane sliding off the runway in Chicago – but that's a whole 'nother story!

This was my first time flying through JFK International Airport (JFK), and I was expecting lots of security in light of this being a post-9/11 World. I'm sure they were there, but weren't obvious to the untrained eye. Either that, or I was just oblivious from the long flight.

Normally, I'd be checking into a motel about this time. Unfortunately, we had only finished the first leg of travel. Due to the SFO-JFK flight being late, we only had about an hour to make our way over to the Royal Jordanian Airlines desk for the mandatory three hour pre-board check-in and wait for international flights.

You'd think that with JFK being the 17th busiest airport in the World there were lots of things to do. Unfortunately, once you've checked into an international terminal, you're were pretty much stuck with little to do. Maybe we were already tired, but we pretty much found some tables in the food court and took some time to check email and surf the web a bit (this was still in my pre-Facebook era, as funny as that sounds).

We finally boarded our flight for Amman, Jordan sometime around 11pm EDT. This was my first experience with international travel, as well as a foreign carrier. I have nothing but praise for my experience. People were leisurely brought onboard. Everything seemed to be ultra clean, as if this was the plane's maiden flight.

We took off to the south and then veered to the East, paralleling Long Island. I have to be honest, one of the things that popped into my head was the horrific ending to TWA 800, which some people claim was shot down by an errant missile.

Shortly after takeoff I toggled through the entertainment options available on the small TV screen buried in backrest of the seat in front of me. I paused on the only channel that seemed to be working. It had a drawing of an airplane inside a compass, with a square box in the upper right-corner.

Apparently, flights with a large Islamic clientele offer this service so the devout Muslim will know which direction Mecca is during prayers. As it was now after midnight nobody seemed to be overtly praying, and must've finished their Isha before leaving New York.

Several minutes after reaching cruising altitude, the flight attendants came around with cards for us to indicate which variety of inflight meal we desired. It may seen funny, but the policy was to still serve dinner on the flight despite it probably being sometime after Midnight.

When the attendant reached my row she handed me an aluminum foil box, with a small bull's head logo. (Other's available were chicken, fish and vegetables). When I opened it it was piping hot, and tasted wonderful.

Another thing that sets Royal Jordanian apart from American carriers is free booze!! Even Economy Class passengers have the ability to have pretty much whatever well drinks they want. I had a couple of Scotch whiskeys. Not sure what brand. Didn't matter. They were well received.

Shortly after everyone received their beverage of choice they turned the cabin lights off, and asked people with overhead lights on to turn them off, and try getting some sleep.

The attendant didn't have to ask me twice as by this time I had a major headache blasting away inside my skull. (No, it wasn't from the Scotch). I was from getting used to new glasses which I'd foolishly picked up the day before leaving. They were a major change in prescription – the first in nearly five years.

The flight to Amman was over 10 hours, arriving somewhere around 6pm EEST. While my headache was pretty much gone, I was pretty wiped.

Queen Alia International Airport (AMM) was a 1980s era airport. While it certainly wasn't dirty in any definition of the word, it seems a little dark to me.

The walls and floor reminded me a lot of the elementary school I went to as a child. There was one big central room, which had divisions made by dividers which resembled those you might see in office cubicles.

Customs went without any events, and it was out to our bus, awaiting outside through a couple of sliding doors. The seats and carpeting were a dark green and muted red, with patterns.

I'd seen plenty of photos of the Middle East, especially once I knew I was going to visit. But, this felt surreal, as this was my first time in a foreign country other than Canada or Mexico. We slowly made our way through 22 miles of roads and streets to our hotel.

There was an odd quality to the sand and what few dried out bushes and trees could be seen. One could argue that the same can be found here in the southwest. However, it just didn't feel the same. You'd have to experience it to know what I'm talking about.

We stayed at the Golden Tulip Grand Palace Hotel, in central Amman. First observation on arrival were the metal detectors  and x-ray machines at the entry way, which reminded me of entering any USA Federal building. Not a comfortable sight as neither seemed to be in use at the time.

They had us spread out over a couple different floors so told us to put tags on our luggage and they'd bring it up. They were also nice enough to keep the dining room open so we could eat.

After eating, our group met up with our constant companion for the next couple of weeks, Doron. He's an Israeli tour guide, but he was able to come over to meet up with us in Amman since we'd be heading towards the Galilee the next day.

We were all exhausted by this point. However, he told us all "Do not be afraid to go out" that night and see the town. He also advised us that we should seek out a pastry shop that made the World's best Kanafeh. Kanafeh is a wonderfully sweet cheese pastry that comes in many styles.

Of the 28 people on the trip, about eight of us took the challenge and headed in the direction Doron said to go. We walked for what seemed like forever and were about to give up when we came on a busy mall. You can only image the look all us American tourists got as we came in at one time.

I think mall security was a bit nervous as they shadowed our group until we left.

At this point we decided to give it a couple more blocks, or so, before giving up. All of a sudden when we ran into a shop called Habibah. The decor reminded me of a combination between Subway Sandwich and Baskin-Robbins. (I recently found out this shop IS World renowned!).

The young Jordanian guys were only too happy to give a great discount to the American girls talking with them and we ended up with an extra amount of Kanafeh, which someone eventually took back to the hotel.

After 30 minutes we headed back to the hotel, full of sweets and ready to drop for a night's sleep.

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