How not to handle customs in the Middle East

Early in the morning the vessel shakes us awake. Silence. The night before we were informed, that the ship will stop in front of the harbour of Ashdod for the immigration and security check by the Israeli officials.

I couldn’t fall asleep anymore and just lie in limbo in my bunk bed, only the sound of the ventilation system as an indication, that the ship is still in operation. All of a sudden a heavy knocking on our door. I jump out of the bed and open the door. It is one of the captains telling us we should meet at the conference room. The lights in the corridor are bright and shiny and with sleepy eyes we reach the line of crew members and the British couple already waiting in front of the door. I can hear three different voices, asking all randomly questions.

One person after another comes out with their passports in their hands. This is the moment where the trip starts to get more adventurous. Entering new lands. The two of us have never been to Israel. I heard stories about full body searches and hours of interrogations. We get closer and closer to the door until they ask us to come in and take a seat.

Three not uniformed Israelis are sitting and standing on the other side of the table. The questions are starting about our relationship and our personal data. Telling them that we have met on our first trip in Nepal they start to dig deeper and deeper trying to get information about the countries we have visited so far and the people we know. At the same time one of them is searching our brand new passports. To be mentioned, they are our second passports, since Austria and the Netherlands are allowing to have a second passport for exactly that purpose. Getting more and more curious and into the direction that they are suspecting us they finally ask were our other passport is. I deny by telling them again that this is my only passport. Nora cannot lie anymore and tells them that her first passport is still in the cabin. The Israelis ask her to get it.


Two minutes later they are scanning through a thick passport with visas from the Stan’s, Iran and Pakistan. The officials get a bit nervous. Especially Pakistan seems to be a problem and they couldn’t believe that Nora went there by herself and spent a month in this country. They suspect her as a potential spy.

Israel is concerned about Pakistan primarily because it is the only Islamic nation in the possession of nuclear weapons. At this point we were doubting if Nora will be entering Israel or if she will even not be allowed to leave the boat. The guy who seemed to be from the intelligence agency said they will take our passports and consult the further procedure. We were send back to our cabin.

Meanwhile the dock agent for the boat arrived and managed together with the crew the unloading of the freight. Since our motorcycles are a part of it he also comes towards us, just to inform us, that we won’t be able to get the motorcycles out of the port until Sunday morning. Since it was Friday the weekend just started. Luckily the captain who introduced us to the port agent told us, that the vessel will stay in port until Sunday anyways for maintenance reasons. So we could easily stay on board, have a place to sleep and food, three times per day. In the situation we are at this point, the best thing that can happen to us.

A weekend on a boat in the harbour of Ashdod. We use the time to edit some vlogs and to relax. At the end of this day our passports are handed over to us again with an entry card for each of us. Israel is not stamping the passport to avoid problems for the holder when travelling to countries like Pakistan, Iran or in our case Sudan.

Observing the harbour of Ashdod from the top deck of the ship the bunkers pop into my view. Shelters in case one of the rockets from the Gaza strip is approaching the site. A taste about the situation in this part of the world. The epicentre of the middle east conflict.

On Saturday, the captain tells us that the vessel will leave on Sunday at 04:00am. So it is time for us to unload the bikes. The port agent picks us up at 07:00pm on Saturday, since at that time the sun was already down and the Shabbat ends. We park the motorcycles safely in a warehouse and the agent offers us to spend the night at the office of the shipping agency. An hour before we were looking for hotels and the cheapest ones are around 100 Euros per night. Way out of our budget. We arrive at the office building and he shows us where we can sleep. In the corridor of the elevator in front of the office door. Could have been better but it was for free so we take it.

So the new day starts. Waiting in front of the office for the staff to arrive, so we can start with the custom procedure to free the bikes from port. First step is to get the release papers from the agency we just slept at. This is a fast process, we just have to pay 120 Euros per motorcycle and the papers are ours. Next step is the port.

Arriving at the gate, after a 30min walk, we get informed that we have to go to the customs building and they even told us a contact who will work on our issue, customs-officer “Shmulik”. He offers us to sit in front on his desk, takes the paper work and starts to type the details into the system. After half an hour he is getting quite confused. “Both bikes are registered on one name?”- “Well, yes!”. So it turns out, that this is an issue that has to be solved. It is not possible, that on both papers the same name occurs. Since he has already typed everything into his system he told us to go back to the shipping agency since they have to change some details on the paper work.

Starting to lose our patience…

Walking 30min in the heat back to the shipping agency we just get informed, that they won’t change anything and after they have called the customs office they told us to arrange an authorisation letter at a notary office. Lots of work and lots of costs. Nora is already getting annoyed and I struggle as well staying calm. Especially after a bad night of sleep.

Since the agents are talking about the authorisation letter I remember, that the ADAC issued a letter like that with our Carnet de Passages. Only problem, they are in the Netherlands, with Noras parents, since the paperwork didn’t arrive on time in Vienna. A phone call later we have to wait for an hour until a copy is send to us by email. Now walking back to the custom office at the harbour. It is already 04:00pm and officer Shmulik is walking towards us at the checkpoint. “Did they change the paperwork?” – “No, they refused, they said it is not possible” – “No, they have to change the paper work” I stay calm and try to be constructive. I explain to him, that we have the authorisation letter, and that it should work with that.

We walk back to his office and start the procedure again. Now another problem occurs since the customs officer doesn’t know where the failure is anymore. At this point Nora starts yelling at him, that he should do his job right and of course he jumps into the provocation. After a few minutes of throwing word bombs at each other the situation calms down again and we finally find a procedure to get the papers done. He is finally handing us the papers out and we are able to go to the port again. Arriving there the guard tells us, that nobody is working anymore and we will have to come back the next day. Exhausted but happy that we made some progress since the morning we get our camping gear and take the bus into town. We haven’t eaten anything the whole day and hungry. On google maps we were searching for a falafel place.

By the way. The biker community in Israel was super helpful from the first moment. A fan of the channel Adventurism, Hagay, was super excited that we were coming to Israel and when we were waiting at the dock in the port he was concerned that we haven’t had any simcard yet, sat with his wife in his car and drove more than 60kms to the port to hand the simcard over to us so we were able to connect to the internet again.

We leave the bus in the centre of Ashdod. Walking through the streets we realise how many shops are signed with Cyrillic letters. In a hidden market we find a busy falafel booth. The keeper is offering us one of his falafel to try. Nice big, soft and soft falafels. Really good stuff. We order two pitas and enjoy the well deserved meal after such a long day. People already told us, that we can camp at the beach for free. That is where we will spend the night today. In the middle of the night we a thunderstorm is calling us back from our dreams. The tent seems to fly away together with us and we cannot do anything then to wait until it is over. The morning, calm and blue sky. The sand is still wet from the heavy rain from last night. We pack up and take the walk over the beach to the harbour.

Getting through the high security gates we finally start the last leg of the procedure. Three hours later we are in front of the exit gates. Finally! We are officially in the middle east now! Our gate to Africa!

First stop of the day is the dead sea. Israel is even smaller than the Netherlands. Actually it is just half the size of it. So it takes us just two hours from the coast of the Mediterranean sea to the shore of the dead sea at 400m below sea level.The lowest land point on earth. Here we are also entering the dry desert area. The sky over the dead sea has its own atmosphere. The colours and the view are just spectacular.

The next day we visit the waterfalls of David, an oasis that is already mentioned in the bible. A beautiful hike through the gorge that is filled with palm trees and lots of lots of green.

Unfortunately more than 60% of the tracks were closed, since they got washed away by some floods. The dead sea basin is quiet and beautiful but at the same time a dangerous place. Locals were talking about rain and that we should be careful! Well what is rain for them turned out to be a few drops. Coming from the north of Europe where rain means walls of water falling from the sky we had to laugh. Until we found out what those few raindrops can cause. The dry surface of the canyon that builds the dead sea basin is so compressed, that the water cannot sink into the ground. It gets collected in the gorges and builds a strong stream within a few minutes. Those streams are washing away everything that comes into their way. Just a week before we came to the oasis a school class of 10 kids got surprised. All of them died.

Leaving the oasis we were heading to the shore of the dead sea at the border of the west bank. Just before the check post on the road we turned onto a track that lead us down to the salt sea. We are tapping slowly into the strange waters! The ground is muddy and we sink until our ankles. The second has come to try it out, rolling on our backs and we finally float. Lying on our back it is like lying in a waterbed. Just a bit of abs muscles are necessary that’s all.

The road alongside the shore of the dead sea leads into the West Bank, Palestine. The land that is occupied by Israel. I thought we will enter a different world. As soon as we passed the check post, nothing has changes. Tremendous roads are leading through this hilly piece of land. Passing villages with the raised flag of Palestine, cars passing by with Palestine license plates, but otherwise it doesn’t feel different. Just when we get closer to the more populated areas, we experience the high walls with barbed wires, surrounding the Israeli settlements. Street signs, warning Israeli citizens not to enter Palestinian villages, since it is highly dangerous and lots of lots of armed forces.

We received an invitation of the Israeli biker family, Diana & Nir from Oranit. A city at the border of the West Bank and Israel. The family welcomes us super friendly, we have dinner and lots of nice conversations. We immediately feel at home.

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About two hours from Oranit the city of Jerusalem is located. Early in the morning, after breakfast we are taking one motorcycle and ride over the highway. I think that Jerusalem is one of the main cities I am excited to see on this trips. Nowhere in the world you can experience religion like in this town. The most important city for Jews and Christs as well as the second most important city for Muslims.

The old town is surrounded by the city wall and we enter through one of the big gates, called the Jaffa gate. From modern day Jerusalem into the old town. The centre of the middle east conflict and the centre of three of the major religions of this world. The city is divided into districts. Starting with the Jewish quarter and the Western Wall. We have to pass high security gates to get to this holy monument. As strong as religion connects people it also separates us. In front of the western wall we watch people praying and putting their small letters with wishes and prayers into the cracks off the wall. Just behind the wall lies the temple mount with the Dome rock.

A huge and beautiful mosque that has magnificent elements of the Ottoman empire is located on the spot. According to Judaism this is the place where the first mankind Adam was created by God, the holiest location in it’s religion. For the muslims however it is the place where Mohammed started his journey to heaven. It is highly restricted to enter the Western Wall by Muslims or to enter the Temple mountain by Jews.

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Our last religion to explore in this city is Christianity and we do that by following the via Dolorosa. The street or route through the city represents the final stations of the passion of Christ ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In the big church, people are crying and kneeling in front of the marvel brick where Jesus’s body was supposed to lie after he was crucified. A strange atmosphere.

The visit of Jerusalem made me decide to take even a larger step away from religion. Stories are apparently the most powerful tool of human kind. How else could billions of people design their life after stories that happened thousands of years ago? More important, will they give a path for human kind for the future we are facing? I highly doubt that.

The stay with the Amir’s is a great opportunity to learn more about the Israeli society and Nir, a tall big, bold guy is introducing us to the Israeli biker community, arranging us oil and a spot at a workshop where we were able to do the first oil change after 12.000km on the clock.

The same day we were meeting Hagay, his wife and their daughter in Jaffa Tel Aviv, showing us around the harbour and the beautiful old building. Jaffa is one of the oldest harbour cities in the world and nowadays a colourful and hip area with a lot of restaurants and arts&crafts shops.

Sunset at the border with Lebanon.

It is always hard to leave behind our newly made friends who become a kind of our motorcycle family. After three nights in Oranit it was time to say goodbye. In the morning, after breakfast, we left the Amirs and start our ride up north. Israel is such a big topic in the latest world history and still in everyday news and politics. It surprised me how small the country is. I live now in the Netherlands, which is already a small country, making Israel, which is just half the area feels like a small town in comparison.

Long story short, after just two hours we arrived at the border to Lebanon. In the north Israel borders to Lebanon and Syria. A mountain ridge splits the countries in the north and in the north-east the Golan heights. A beautiful mountain road curves its alongside the border and up to the top of the Golan heights, which are by definition a part of Syria and not recognised as Israel territory by the UN.

At the top of the Golan heights is a Café, named Coffee Annan. A former tactical point conquered by the IDF in the 70ies. From there we experience a wide few over Syria. On a clear day it might be possible to see Damascus on the horizon. A strange feeling being so free, standing at the top of the hill, drinking a cappuccino and searching the roads and lands of Syria for a sign of life. It is quiet and almost seems like nobody is living there anymore. Mount Hermon rises up into the sky and on the Israeli side a ski lift crawls up the slope. Peace meets war. Structure meets destruction.

The road through the Golan heights are left and ride fenced with endless minefields. In between those minefields we find a kibbutz for the night. A simple campsite and the people there don’t want our money. Instead they invite us for coffee and we leave for the northern border to Jordan, upon the dead sea. A new adventure to come in the next post.

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