Saturday, May 11, 2013

Day 4 in Jerusalem, West Bank Tour: Bethlehem, the Jordan River, Jericho, Taybeh & Ramallah

Today was an early day, I got up around 7 am to get ready for the West Bank Tour organized through my hostel.  I had to check out of my hostel room, I was moving rooms today, there was a line when I got to the reception desk about five minutes before the tour's scheduled departure time.  When I got to the front of the line, the receptionist told me I needed to bring my linens to the front desk, some hostels require this others do not, I did not see any guidance on this from this hostel, so I left the linens in my room. By the time I put my luggage in the luggage room, got my sheets, it was 8 am, the buses for the tour had arrived and were loaded.

The hostel's tour organizer came in and told me I was the last one not on a bus, he knew I was checking out, the woman at the reception sped up a little.  I finally finished checking out, got on the bus and apologized to the occupants for being late. They said no problem, everyone was in good spirits, we introduced ourselves, they were law students from Canada studying in Haifa.

We sat on the bus, waiting for the tour to start.  The tour did not start, we started questioning when we were going to leave, one of the drivers said we were waiting on one person.  I told the people on the bus, they told me I was the last person.  We sat, a few people got out and went to the bathroom, I followed a few minutes later.  Finally, one of the women went and talked to the hostel staff, asked when the tour would start.  Shortly after, the buses left, headed for the Israeli West Bank border.

As we approached Bethlehem in the West Bank, the first thing I noticed was the bright red sign instructing Israelis not to enter, that it was a danger for them to travel to there and against the law.  In addition to the sign warning Israelis, there was a large security presence, checkpoints, and look out towers. Israel's security wall also dominated the landscape, reminiscent of the Berlin Wall before it was torn down.

Our first stop was Israel's security wall, my first thoughts when I saw it was the Berlin Wall that separated East and West Germany for almost 30 years.  I was just in Berlin a few weeks ago and saw the remnants of the Berlin wall, it was sad to see another wall separating two countries. Another thing I noticed, the Israeli wall is much taller than the Berlin Wall, like the Berlin Wall it is has watchtowers every few meters for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to keep an eye on Palestinians in the West Bank. The Palestinian side of the Wall has graffiti, including artwork by UK artist Banksy.

Me at the Israeli Security Wall on the Palestinian Side 

Lynnae in front of Banksy Mural in Bethlehem
Our next stop was a Palestinian refugee camp, this was not a camp with tents, they live in homes built in a Bethlehem neighborhood.  A little boy approached our guide and said something, then he came over and shook our hands as we walked into his neighborhood.  Our tour guide pointed out posters of a young man, he said this man was shot in the head by an IDF soldier, he died a week later.  Someone asked what the man had done to provoke the IDF response, the guide said he was throwing rocks, something common among Palestinians protesting the wall.

Man Shot in the Head by the IDF
We left the refugee camp, stopped and bought a traditional Palestinian bread, it reminded me of a tortilla, I ate it without any topping, it was served hot, tasted delicious.  We then continued to walk through the streets of Bethlehem to the Church of the Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus Christ. There was not much of a crowd outside the church when we arrived, but inside there were large numbers of people, the wait to go to the room where Jesus was born was 3 hours, we did not wait.  We did go into the cave where Jesus was born and through holes in the wall we could see Jeusus' birthplace.  There were many groups on pilgrimages to Bethlehem, when we left the Church of Nativity there were many groups outside.

Lynnae in front of the Church of Nativity

Lynnae in Cave where Jesus was born, Korean Nuns having Service in Background
We went to lunch in Bethlehem after seeing the Church of the Nativity.  Lunch was hummus, another chickpeas based dip, pita bread, shredded chicken, pickles, tomatoes, onions, and the best mint lemonade I have ever had.  We went to the Catholic Shepard's Field after lunch, the Orthodox Greeks have another field they say is the Shepard's Field.  The Shepard's Field is the location where God sent his Angel to announce a new King, Jesus Christ, was born.

Lynnae at Church in the Shepard's Field 

The Shepard's Field, Bethlehem 
We had a long drive to the Jordan River after walking around the Shepard's field.  I fell asleep on the ride to the Jordan river, waking up every now and then to take a picture of the scenery.  The Jordan River is where Jesus was baptized, today it is a military zone, littered with land mines, guarded by the IDF on the Palestinian side of the river.  There were warning signs at the entrance of the Jordan River.  I took off my shoes, rolled up my jeans and dipped my feet in the river where Jesus was baptized.

Warning at the Jordan River Baptismal Site

Lynnae dipping her feet in the Jordan River
From the Jordan River we went to Jericho, the lowest point on earth.  Our guide pointed out the biblical significance  of Jericho as the place where the devil tried to tempt Jesus on the Mount of Temptation.  One of the mountains in Jericho is the passage Jesus took to Jerusalem and also the sight of where he healed the two blind men, restoring their sight.

Mount of Temptation Monastery, Jericho 

Me & Mountain where Jesus Healed Blind Men 
After Jericho, where it was very hot, we left for Taybeh to visit the West Bank's only microbrewery.  I am not a beer drinker, this was the only part of the West Bank Tour I was not especially looking forward to, but it was good to see Palestinian entrepreneurs.  I tasted the beer, tasted the same as all beer does to me, unappetizing.  We went on a tour of the small brewery, several of the people on the tour bought beer to bring back for tonight, supporting the Palestinian economy.  Taybeh is exported to Japan, and a few other countries, they are working on the US and UK now.  

Taybeh Brewery, Palestinian Beer 
Our final stop on the West Bank Tour was Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian authority. My camera's battery indicator was red, meaning my battery would die at any moment, I was hoping my camera would last until we got to Yasser Arafat's tomb.  On our way to Arafat's tomb, we were stopped by President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abas' motorcade, we did not see President Abas, but it was cool to arrive in town as his motorcade passed.

Traffic as President Abas' motorcade passes in Ramallah
Our first stop in Ramallah was Yasser Arafat's Tomb, which is located next to the Presidential compound.  Our tour guide instructed us to leave all our bags in the car, not to smile and only take our cameras.  I usually smile in my pictures, but I followed instructions and did not smile in the photo at Abas' tomb.  Shortly after I got my pics next to Abas' tomb my camera died.

Lynnae at Yasser Arafats Tomb in Ramallah
We spent the last part of the West Bank Tour walking around Ramallah, some people went to a restaurant for an hour instead of walking around the area.  I never felt in danger while in Ramallah, despite the State Department's warning for the area.  The fact that Israel/West Bank are volatile areas was visible everywhere in the West Bank, from the multiple Israeli checkpoints to the signs at the Jordan River warning it was a military zone.  Every step in this land with so many historical, sacred sites of importance to Judaism, Christianity and Muslims are disputed, the area is a big military zone.  I am happy I got to see this part of the world, but it was sad to see this region, marred with conflict, poverty and little hope for a resolution anytime soon.  I hope I am wrong and the Israelis and Palestinians settle this conflict soon and are able to live side by side in peace. 

After Ramallah we headed back to our hostel in Jerusalem.  The bus I was riding in was stopped for several minutes at the Israeli checkpoint, I wished my camera was working.  I was once again in awe of the Israeli Security wall, the checkpoint, Israel's security apparatus.  I am not going to pass judgment on the Israelis or the Palestinians on this blog, I am happy I did not visit Israel without seeing the West Bank, at the same time, seeing the West Bank made the conflict more vivid than it was before.  

After I got back to my hostel, I changed rooms.  I moved to the room next door, I added a night to my stay in Jerusalem, part of that was changing rooms, I did not mind.  I met one of my hostel mates, a middle-aged man from Munich, Germany. I think my other roommate is a woman, but I have not met her yet. After I settled into my new room, I went out to find dinner, I knew things would be open, Shabbat ended today at sundown.  I got my Israel favorite, Falafel on Laffa bread, it was delicious as always. 

I am blogging from the lobby of the hostel, I leave Jerusalem for Eilat tomorrow morning.  I do not have any big plans for Eilat, it is a beach town, I am going down there because that is where the tour to Petra, Jordan begins on Monday.  Now it is time to get some much needed sleep. 

Day 4 in Jerusalem Photo Album: 

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