Friday, January 02, 2009

Jerusalem and Bethlehem

Despite warnings from Egyptians and the hesitation from other travellers, we jumped on an overnight bus that took us to Taba, Egypt the border crossing with Israel. It was a miserable bus ride because the air temperature inside was the same as outside, which is to say nearly freezing in the desert. They had the air conditioning on all night instead of the heater...... There was only one other foreigner on the bus, a Filipino Fransiscan priest. He used to work in Libya, attending the ex-pats working there. I didn't think that would be allowed there but I guess it is.
We arrived at 5am and even at that early hour the 24 hour crossing was still pretty busy with package tourists heading into Israel. I'd always anticipated a problem with me crossing so I was not surprised when they let mom and dad through and then pulled me aside to ask about the Sudan visa in our passports. I'm glad that was an easy one to explain away but it still took an hour of questions (they want to know everything) and background check. I'm glad I didn't try to come in before with my other passport.....
After the chaos of Cairo, Eilat (the city on the Israeli side) seemed really quiet. It reminded me of our trip to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta when we visited from Morocco. Just more developed, organized, modern and all that. Becauase it was still quite early the city buses hadn't started yet so we had to take a taxi from the border into town. The taxi driver was a strange guy, complained about the stupidity of paranoid tourists, always thinking their being ripped off by taxis and then letting the big hotels and travel agencies ripping them off for way more. I guess they have a point. He also couldn't wear his seat belt because he was part of a special anti-terrorist response team or something and had his gun beside him all the time. What a great into to Israel! Of course it seemed like everyone except us had a machine gun. It is truly bizarre to see little girls (and I mean little because more Israeli's seem really short) talking on cell phones and lugging their bags around the bus station and also having a gun slung over their shoulder. Oh, I'll just do a little make up today and oil my gun...... Damn! I can't say whether or not it has anything to do with the Gaza issue but I get the impression that it is pretty normal. There may be a few more in random places because the reserves are being called up but who knows?
After a short wait we got on the next bus heading to Jerusalem. Once again my seatmate was the priest and with heroic effort I stayed awake for most of the 4 1/2 hour journey. The land is still pretty barren in the southern desert but at least our route took us past the Dead Sea for a long stretch.
Jerusalem is big. And hilly. Not a lot of vegetation and lots of limestone block buildings. We've gone back to couchsurfing again so had a walk into the center of town from the bus station along their main road, Jaffa. It is currently all chewed up as they are putting in a tram line. The city center is nice enough but obviously not the main attraction.
On our first day out we were forced to deal with the typical Vancouver winter weather of cold and wet. We still managed a few hours in the old town before retiring for the day. The following 2 days were cold and sunny and it is close to freezing with snow a possibility here soon. I don't know what to say about the old city besides the obvious. We went to the major highlights like the Wailing Wall, Temple Mount and various churches marking significant event in the life of Christ like the last supper, his crucifixion and resurrection, the Garden of Gethsemane, etc. What have I learned? Well, that you need a lot of time and a really good guide in Jerusalem to get anything out of it.
Have I gotten anything out of it? Hmmmm, tough to say. Dad is thrilled with being here and seeing it all. I can't say I'm feeling any holier or I've been touched by any angels. I've had a terribly sore throat for a long time now and I'm still waiting to get miraculously healed...... But at the same time, it is interesting to put the historical places to the stories in their proper relation. Events took place very close to each other if you believe that the real sites have been found. There is not as much harmony and brotherly love here as you'd think though because there's more than one crucifixion and resurrection site on display depending on which sect you talk to. I suppose the biggest effect this city has had on me is that it's making me miss the scholarly thing. I kind of wish I could stick around a couple years and study religion. In a historical, philosophical and psychological kind of way.
The different religions have their own explanations too. It's all very interesting. On the surface it seems peaceful though, despite the current events in Gaza you'd never really know anything was going on over here. There is tons of security anyway, for obvious reasons, and you don't really think about it much. Today was the first friday since the Gaza bombings began so there was a very heavy security presence. The first very noticeable change here. We decided to do a day trip over to Bethlehem on the West Bank. Maybe you guys think that is not a good idea, especially with Hamas asking everyone on the West Bank to make trouble and it being a friday. But I think that it wasn't really very risky. Bethlehem sees more tourists than the other towns and the population is largely Christian.
Of couse the main attraction is the Church of the Nativity where Christ was born but actually the most interesting "attraction" is probably crossing the wall that separates the West Bank from Israel. It's a very serious wall and they aren't messing around with it. It's just interesting because at the same time you can imagine all the other walls and barriers of the world like Berlin and the Koreas and everywhere else. Actually it was really strange today because as we were walking across through the security fences we could hear the call to prayer and the friday afternoon sermon (the biggest and longest of the week) and in a way it totally fit the imagination of being in the Soviet Union with propaganda speakers...... We walked the few km from the wall to the center of Bethlehem and the church. It was a beautiful day and the views over the hills were great. The city doesn't seem all that poor, the people look quite well off but again, I suspect that it is not the true story or very representative over here. We saw more Christmas decorations than anywhere else this season as well. The Church of the Nativity is a big compound now with a couple churches, monasteries, grottos and the like all compressed together and on top of each other. It was interesting. Getting back into Israel was a lot easier than I expected too.
Of course, reading the news today we have learned that there were some protests and stone-throwing etc, here in Jerusalem and in other parts of the West Bank. Good thing we decided not to go anywhere else like Ramallah :) Seriously though, I'm still not too worried. The Israelis have things under control.
On a more personal note, we are having a good time here with our host. He is busy a lot of the time so we are mostly on our own all day long. It's interesting though because our host's sister has just won the first Big Brother competition in Israel and is now a celebrity. It has also been quite amusing to see all the ultra-orthodox Jews here too. Jerusalem is a lot more conservative than the other big cities and there are a lot of guys running around with the black suits and hats and the curly sideburns. It's strange after coming from Africa because in a way it is exactly the same to look at them and see them as you would see tribal Africans with their strange costumes and customs and symbology. We were also very lucky in being able to meet with an Israeli friend that we had met when we were travelling in Georgia over 2 years ago! It was a great visit and definitely helped in giving us some understanding (it is impossible to actually understand the country and these people) of life out here.
Tomorrow we will head north to Haifa for a couple days.


At 1:51 PM , Blogger The Bear said...

Hey Ammon
Tell your Dad sorry I yelled, it surprised me so much, the timing was spectacularily bad. But then the first time I met him he was blowing off TNT in the river by the church ranch...... probably why I had to work through the names to get to the one I wanted.
Anyways, I found your comments and insight entertaining as always. It sounds like there are less touts, and rip off people... or just you are immune? I have always wanted to take a guided tour of Israel, just to eliminate some of the distraction and focus the tour on relevant events. there is just so much to see. Oh well, at least you didn't get held up by the Gaza strip entertainment. It is making members over here nervous, or at least a bit twitchy about the world vs Israel thing, and revelations. Must have overheard a bunch of snippets of conversations on it at church yesterday.
When ever I see pictures of Israel I am always struck by how barren and bleak it looks. Was this your impression too?
What was your favourite place to visit in Israel?

Gotta Run,
Big Bear Hugs
The Bear


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