O little town of Bethlehem

[This post got pretty long so I’m splitting it in two. Here’s Part 1. Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.]

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Sunday around noon I took the bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Florentine was almost too nice of a hostel… I could easily have spent another week there sitting on my butt on their rooftop doing nothing. So it was time to get a move on.

Almost immediately, I ran into two Dutch girls I had met a week ago, Esmee and Nina. They easily talked me into going on an ill-fated adventure of trying to walk to the Mount of Olives to see the sunset. Suffice it to say, we never ended up making it and instead found ourselves wandering through an ancient cemetery after dark. But we wouldn’t let failure deter us! We made plans to get up early the next morning and go on a day trip to Bethlehem, our first taste of the West Bank.

After finally ending up at the correct bus station (turns out Bus 21 to Bethlehem leaves from the Damascus Gate, not the Central Bus Station as the guy at our hostel had told us), the bus left almost immediately and was an easy 40-minute ride. I had heard conflicting information about whether or not I needed my passport to enter the West Bank, so I brought it just in case, but it turned out on the way that the Dutch girls had not. No worries; we breezed through the checkpoint on the way in without even stopping, just like a toll lane with EZ-Pass.

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The difference was immediately noticeable on the other side. First thing we noticed was that signs were now all in only Arabic and English, as opposed to the trilingual Hebrew-Arabic-English signs found throughout Israel. Then, before we had even gotten off the bus, we were surrounded by cab drivers offering to take us places. One even went so far as to tell us we were walking in the wrong direction from the center of town, which obviously wasn’t true. It was a strong reminder of traveling in third-world Asia where I was hassled daily by touts, something I haven’t encountered at all in developed Israel.

There were other differences in the mood of the area too, but it was hard to put a finger on exactly what. Part of the problem was that it was (and still is) Ramadan, so most of the shops were closed and there weren’t as many people as usual out and about. The taxi drivers had said, “Where you want to go? I take you to see wall, see Banksy graffiti. All of Bethlehem closed today.” This may have been the only time in the history of travel that the old “[popular attraction] is closed today” line was actually true. Well, mostly true at least.

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At least one sight was open. We made our way through the old town to the Church of the Nativity, a huge and beautiful basilica that has been heavily altered over the centuries and is said to be built over the site where Jesus was born. When we visited a good deal of the interior was covered with scaffolding for restoration purposed, but the adjoining Church of St. Catherine is in excellent condition and equally beautiful. The whole complex is sprawling and fairly maze-like, with various tunnels and stairs leading to all the holy sites inside.

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We spent maybe an hour there before getting tired of jostling for space with the massive tour groups inside, and wandered back across town in search of the souq. Unfortunately, there were only two or three vegetable sellers open, along with a man with a small bread stall on the main street. We were all a bit hungry and searching for a place to eat lunch, but of course not a single restaurant or cafe in the whole town was open, and we didn’t want to cause offense by eating in the street during Ramadan. (We’ve heard that you can even be arrested for it, but I doubt anyone would prosecute us as tourists. Still, it seemed like it would be extremely rude, and we didn’t want to hide in a back alley eating our contraband bread, so we didn’t buy any.)

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We searched for something else to do in the area. We admired the Mosque of Omar from afar, but we were in between the regular visiting times and would have to wait several hours to enter. Ditto the Milk Grotto Chapel. Plus, we were still hungry and getting restless.

Finally we decided to cave to the taxi drivers who kept approaching us in Manger Square. “Where you go? Go see Banksy graffiti, see wall.” Sure, okay, we’ll go see the Banksy wall.

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[Stay tuned for part 2, coming as soon as I finish getting my thoughts in order.]

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