Travel Well Traveled
'Recommended by Two Out of Three Stray Dogs'
Palestine might be a touchy subject to broach in our lighthearted clustercluck that is Travel Well Traveled, but what is a cheap little travel zine if not to push an occasional envelope, lick it closed, and then throw it into the mailbox and run away screaming?
Anyway, Palestine was not a planned trip of mine, but when ol' Jack found himself in the Holy City, with Bethlehem just a bus ride and security checkpoint away, what could he do but embrace the 'why the $*#* not?' of the moment and go?
Well, if you've traveled all the way to Bethlehem I'm going to assume you have a passing interest at least in Christianity. There are plenty of pilgrims coming through, but even my fellow non-religious types will find the place interesting (and one of the safer spots to visit in Palestine).
What to do
Get yourself to the Church of the Nativity, of course. But, word of warning, go first thing in the morning (FIRST thing, like 5 AM!!!) to get there before the crowds of pilgrims swarm the place.
Stoop through the doorways and let yourself be lead deep into the nave to the very spot where Jesus was born. Kneel under the altar and kiss the stylized metal star on the cold stone and feel a little tingle, even if you are a lapsed whatever.
Other than that, just wander about the town, do a little souvenir shopping for carved wooden figurines, and just marvel at the idea that you're hanging out in Palestine and everything is fine. Remember that anything you buy will have to go through security, though.
Jack approached Bethlehem without much adventure on his mind, but he did go for a little wander (see misadventures and the long thoughts on the back). If you'd like to plan something a little more exciting head over to the visitor center in the square across from The Church of the Nativity. They may be able to help you out, but I don't think the immediate area is much given to ATV off-roading or skydiving. White water rafting might be a little tricky. . .
On the plus side, the young lady working the visitor center desk was strikingly beautiful (good idea, Bethlehem). Otherwise, you'll find more of the traditional day trips back in Israel and especially in the neighbors Jordan and Egypt (when Egypt isn't in open revolt, of course).
The Elephant in the Holy Land
You're a pig-dog American and in Palestine and they all know you support their oppressor Israel, right? Well, Jack found the people of Bethlehem to be perfectly friendly and on par with many of the other places he visited. In fact, they are eager to show tourists/pilgrims that they are a welcoming and peaceful community.
With that being said, actually engaging locals and discussing your thoughts on their unique situation is not advised. Even if you think they'll agree with everything you say, it's best not to stir up that particular hornets nest, right?
The Wallet Roll
It is not a cheap place and hostels are few and far between. Jack had an issue with his own, ending up getting charged an unreasonable rate for one night and having to haggle/argue with the internet offerings he'd received when he'd booked it. Plan to spend a bit of money to stay here (but you honestly don't need to spend more than a day or two).
Between 30 and 40 dollars for a hostel was my experience and planning day trips can be a tricky proposition with ever-increasing prices.
Haggle at the shops and enjoy the cheap local drinks!
The travel thoughts on the reverse is one long, interesting misadventure. Enjoy!
Not surprisingly, Bethlehem isn't a big party town. Jack didn't come across much of a night life and he was wandering around downtown under the moon more than once. But, again, that girl at the visitor center was striking. So go try and hit on her. You ladies better just hook up with the few other hostel backpackers.
Jack's hostel only held one very strange Australian guy, so no dice.
The Seal Club
As a destination that many backpackers skip, this is a unique destination and a must-see for any Christian. If you're very pressed for time, just do Jerusalem, though. So, very recommended, but not essential.
Don't fret about the border control or any danger. This is a safer spot than most major American cities and you get to see some truly important historical spots (whether you're a Christian or not).
Again, Jerusalem is absolutely needed if you're in Israel, but why not head over to Palestine and Bethlehem, too?
Travel Tip # 28: Take time to journal or sketch at your favorite spot, this will be a great keepsake.
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Stumbling Over One of the World's Most Dangerous Borders
Excogitate Jack is never one to suggest doing anything particularly foolhardy or dangerous, but he has a certain naivete about him that some women find charming and some thieves find irresistible. Even in his cynical old age, Jack is a guy that will happily walk through a sketchy neighborhood or approach a fully armed group of foreign soldiers as long as its daylight and they can see the smile on his face (also the possibility of fleeing down a handy alley).
After taking in the sights at The Church of the Nativity (including waking up at a dreadful 5AM to get there with just the church mice), Jack found himself in Bethlehem without much to see or do. So, taking a gander at the map provided by that helpful visitor center girl, he saw something called 'The Pools of Solomon' that looked a decent little walk away from his current spot. Not wanting to pay for a taxi and wanting to take in some local color, I decided to hoof it. Now, most folk might be intimidated at the idea of walking around Palestine's somewhat chaotic and dirty streets that lead you right through the places marked 'refugee camps' on your tourist map, but apparently I'm just brave (or dumb) enough to go for it. In my defense, walking out in the open, in a reasonably crowded city, during the daylight, seems to be pretty safe. Even the refugee camps near Bethlehem have a lower crime rate than Detroit or Washington DC. So there.
I kept walking for several hours (not through tents as the camps are really now a hodgepodge of shoddy apartment buildings), and kept right on walking up a hill in a little ramshackle neighborhood. According to my very basic map, I was near the Pools of Solomon, but I couldn't find them. While I was searching, a gaggle of children came running out and followed me, skipping along and saying a few words in English. However, as I crested the next hill, the children fell away, disappearing with practiced ease. I saw why immediately: at the bottom of the hill were 5 Israeli soldiers, wearing full combat armor, their bulky, black machine guns at rest on their shoulders, and American-style sunglasses hiding their eyes. They were hanging out near a parked humvee.
I won't lie and say that I didn't feel an immediate drop in my stomach. I may not usually resemble a Palestinian heading toward the border, but I'd been traveling long enough to grow a thick beard and my skin was rather bronzed. Still, I reminded myself that perhaps these guys might speak English and they may be able to direct me towards the Pools. Raising my hands in both a wave and to show that I was not a threat, I approached the soldiers. I remember that one smiled back and several others just looked, which is quite intimidating when their eyes are hidden behind mirrored shades and they have this metal stick that can blow your head off so quick you won't even realize it happened.
However, the soldiers were perfectly pleasant. I talked to one that spoke some broken English and showed him my map. They conferred in Hebrew and seemed to get into a mild argument about where the destination might be. Then one approached the humvee and poked their CO who was taking a nap in the driver's seat. He didn't seem to be very happy to be awake, but his men just laughed when I motioned that they needn’t bother him. He and I talked for a bit and he used his radio to ask someone else if they knew where this silly tourist was trying to get to. No such luck. So, I thanked the soldiers and walked back over the hill where I had just inadvertently (and certainly illegally) crossed the border between Palestine and Israel.
As I topped the hill once again, the children found me and they trailed me back down the opposite side of the hill. Probably 100 yards away were more young men with guns, but these were Palestinian soldiers manning a highway checkpoint, complete with concrete barriers and plenty of weapons. It was striking how similarly the two groups were kitted out: big, scary guns, sunglasses, body armor, and a humvee. I doubt they'd like me to say that, but I'm sure you're realizing where this little article is going. The Palestinian soldiers also got a two-raised hands wave from ol' Jack and then their CO (who could speak some English) seemed to like having a chance to do something other than man an empty road.
After I told him of where I was going, he said he couldn’t help me. That was when one of the children, a 10 year old boy, who'd been following me, spoke up. The two chatted for a few minutes then the soldier told me 'the boy will take you there'. I thanked him, waved goodbye to the soldiers (who seemed good-naturedly bemused) and the boy lead me to the pool.
So what after school special lesson did I learn? I learned that these two groups of soldiers, who are ostensibly enemies that might have to shoot each other at any moment, are actually two groups of young men (kids, when you're in your thirties looking at them). Both groups were kind and helpful to a stranger in their lands, and if not for that one thing (that one BIG thing) they probably could have all had a blast playing soccer together. You can extrapolate my feelings on the whole Israel-Palestine problem from this.
Travel Tip 50: It is not a bad idea to keep some little rocks, an air-horn, or a whistle to scare off particularly bold, unfriendly, stray dogs. Don't be hiking a lonely country road without it!
Church of the Nativity
The big reason why you're heading to Bethlehem. The claim to fame is that there is now a church built on the former spot of that most famous of manger's that someone was born away in. The church is small and easily accessed from the town center (it is in the town square, actually). I don't know what time it opens, but ol Jack was through those doors at 5:30AM and it was just him, the church mice, and a few pilgrims. By 8AM the place is so crowded it is hard to walk through.
So go inside, marvel at the many incense holders at the altar and then head down the stone steps to the altar with the shiny metal star on the floor that is supposed to denote the exact spot where Jesus Christ was born. Even if you're not a Christian, this is neat stuff and you get to make all your Christian friends jealous.
Google headquarters and plenty of outdoor markets are just a few of the things you'll find here. Bethlehem feels like small city around the church, but opens up as you keep walking (and Jack walked and walked and walked). It feels different from Jerusalem, but mostly because of the many reminders of the ongoing troubles (posters, graffiti, signs, etc.) .
Jack's Stroll to the Pools of Solomon
The Pools themselves were no great shakes, but it was interesting walking there. You would think that the refugee camps would look like they do in movies, but they are full on settlements now. There is still some squalor to be found, but it felt like a mostly stable, desert community. Here are some photos that ExJack snapped on the way to the anticlimactic Pools.
The Milk Grotto
Another nice little site near the Church of the Nativity, the Milk Grotto is a pretty neat place. There is an interesting stained glass window and the flower gardens are a nice contrast to the arid climate.
My brief stay in Palestine was an odd one. Bethlehem has a few cultural treasures, but is otherwise just another city with not a lot for an uneducated foreigner like me to appreciate without being able to speak the local language. But I did thoroughly enjoy and appreciate my misadventure across the border and meeting the soldiers.
This wasn't an experience I would intentionally set out to create, but it is one of the big travel stories that I tell people (especially those that don't travel much themselves). Traveling will open your eyes and perhaps taking a trip to a 'dangerous' place like Palestine will do that for you, too. If you're in Jerusalem and you have at least two days to make the long (time wise) crossing, then you should go!