Every story has two sides and my trip to Israel is no exception. I have spent my first couple of days in Israel, and the rest in Palestinian territories. To get to Palestine was way easier and far less dangerous than I originally thought.
My first destination was Bethlehem. I was staring my trip in Jerusalem so I have headed to the bus station at Damaskus gate. It took me a while to figure out how this place works, because there are four bus stations in the area. Each one represents the direction of your destination (North, South, East, and West). There are several buses going to Bethlehem but the fastest ones are number 231 and 234. It is also relatively cheap – only 7 NIS a way. However, the bus only takes you to the checkpoint. If any driver tells you they will take you further they lie, because they are prohibited to do so by law. The only exception are Arabic taxi drivers, but the way would get way more expensive, so I have chosen to take the bus, and took a taxi to Bethlehem from the checkpoint. In the beginning, I have planned to get a ride to the centre and walk around by myself but the driver I met convinced me to stay with him for the whole day. And so, I did, and I didn´t regret it!
This place is more than Jesus´ birthplace
My driver´s name was Foaud and he was a local Palestinian Muslim. As we talked he took me to Bethlehem´s ghettos and around the wall. He drove me up the hill to see how divided this country actually is, and I can tell you – the situation is heart-breaking! Majority of the people had to close their businesses because one day they woke up into a wall that was built 1,5 m away from their door. We have also visited Banksy´s graffiti places.For my surprise, those paintings mean to Palestinians way more than I thought. One of them is on the wall of the local gas station. This gave me a chance to ask other locals how they feel about Banksy. They said the graffiti brought the attention to the issue, and the number of people who fight their inappropriate fears, travel to West Bank and make their own opinion, is increasing. Mission accomplished…
Surely, I also visited the religious sites as the Church of Nativity or the Milk Grotto, but honestly, after what I saw in town, those places ended up being two ordinary churches to me. I walked through the city centre, where probably only every sixth or seventh shop/restaurant was opened. No tourists at all, except for little groups brought there by tourist buses all lead by a guide.Foaud stopped me and told me: ´Do you see those people? They are like sheep, the know nothing! They come here, see nothing but the tourist paths and churches; know nothing but what they are told by their guide; and they are scared because they are told to be by their media…´ Dear Foaud, after my trip to Bethlehem, I have nothing more to say than - you have summed it up perfectly!
Be careful about your blue card!
Despite everyone freaking out that I was travelling to Palestine alone, nothing happened to me and I had absolutely no problems, except for one when I was crossing the border back to Israel. You are crossing the border at the checkpoint so they are checking your passport and visa. For some funny reason, everyone had a blue card (visa you automatically get at the airport), except for me!
I am very lucky to always have these kind of problems, however, this time, probably for the first time, it wasn´t my fault. They gave me stamp into my passport in Eilat but they didn´t give me the card (don´t ask me how is it possible, no idea!). After all, they decided to let me back in but it took me minutes of persuading the guards (and numerous ear-to-ear smiles).
Jericho – the oldest city
My problems with not having the blue card the other day haven´t discouraged me. I was determined to ´play stupid´ again if needed. The reason was my next day´s plan. I have chosen to go to Jericho. Jericho lies almost at the Jordan border, so it was a bit more complicated to get there. I have again started at the Damaskus gate in the Arab quarter (but this time from another bus station which was a bit harder to find). I took a bus 263 and got off, literally, in the middle of nowhere!
The checkpoint was in the little town called Bethany (this place was a bit dangerous and on my way back the taxi driver waited with me in the locked car till the bus came so I was safe, be more aware in this area). There were three more locals travelling the same journey to Jericho, so luckily for me there was a taxi we could share. It took more than hour of driving to get to Jericho. With good experience from Bethlehem, I have kept the taxi driver for the whole day again. Jericho is supposed to be the safest place in Palestine and the government is doing its best to keep it that way, however, you may have a different feeling while visiting this area. However, always listen to what locals have to say about it 😊
The Mount of Temptation – how I happened to be the devil
My first stop was the old Greek Orthodox monastery. It is carved into the rock face of the mountain 350 meters above sea level, it was originally inhabited by Byzantine monks and has religious significance - it is believed that Jesus stayed here for 40 days and 40 nights and resisted the Devil. There are two priests, one coming there at the age of 33 (staying there till he dies), and another, coming for 5 years. Walking up the hill in the heat can be quite challenging, however there is a cable car from the Tel Jericho that will take you up in only 5 mins.
I have chosen the harder way. I walked up from the parking lot, and when I got there, I had to face a problem. The older priest was sitting on the balcony and saw me as I was putting a sweater on top of a tank top in the parking lot (I must stress that this was IN THE PARKING LOT, when I got out of the car). He called me a devil, a sinner, and refused to let me in despite having a sweater and a scarf on top of my head (because he saw me wearing tank top from the distance, he said). It was funny to watch the other priest and doorman calling him crazy and letting me in despite his disapproval, however, as I saw they were all getting uncomfortable because of the situation, I have chosen to leave and restore the peace. So, my advice is, do not wear tank tops at all (not even under sweater or hoodie) because you never know who is watching you!
The legend of the prostitute
The ruins of the Old Jericho is something you should see as you have travelled so far, but unless you are a fanatical archeologist or historian, do not expect more than few hills, stones and dust. What really caught my attention is the legend connected to the fall of Jericho. Bible says that when Hebrew were about to cross the river Jordan and take over Jericho, they have sent two spies to inspect the military strength of Jericho. A local prostitute called Rahab hid them in the house while making an agreement with them, that during the massacre she will mark her house by hanging a red cord out the window, and the soldiers will spare her, and her family. Interesting...
Sacred Jordan river
Jordan river is the reason, why so many people, especially Christians, visit the area of Jericho. I can honestly say, that the way from Jericho to the border was more interesting than the river itself. We were driving on the road located between two minefields! It is a border area, therefore there was fence almost all the way up, it was prohibited to stop the car, walk, or take pictures. It was a bit scary because the road was getting narrower and there were couple of military checkpoints. When we finally got there, the Jordan river was a small muddy stream (maybe 3 m wide), where dozens of people were bathing. I think that if you are not strictly religious, you can spend your time in a better way and skip this place without any regrets (maybe you will also save yourself a visit of the hospital).
My last stop on this trip was Eilat. I was flying home from here so I was naturally interested to look around. Eilat was a completely different story than the rest of the places I saw. It was more of a family holiday destination (mostly for Russians). Hotels, malls, promenade, sea, and the beach. Despite the fact that I had to speak Russian instead of English while staying here, there are two interesting things about Eilat.
As a foreigner you can shop anywhere in Israel without paying the tax, however Eilat is the only town, where all shops are already tax-free, so you can shop till you drop for great prices (even expensive brands) without having to wait in the queues on the airport to get your money back. The second one is more geographical, when you sit on the beach facing the sea you can see five countries – Palestine behind you, Jordan on the left, Saudi Arabian mountains in the distance, Egypt on the right, while sitting on the Israeli land. Cool, isn´t it?
My trip in Israel was amazing, I would call it safe, and definitely adventurous. The only thing I regret is not having more time! I am planning to come back and expand my trip to Jordan too. Who´s in? 😊