Postcard From Bethlehem ( Shortlisted for the 2013 Quirky Travel Writing Competition)

Standing waiting outside Jaffa Gate – the entrance to The Christian Quarter of Jerusalem, I once again checked the time. The driver was now over 30 minutes late, and I was beginning to think I would never get over to Bethlehem for Christmas day. There were now a group of about six other people waiting for the same car. And it had been established that a man from the tour company was on his way over to sort the problem out.

When he arrived he apologised profusely telling us that, “This is the Palestinian Territories for you, they are never organised.”

I thought it a bit lame to blame the Palestinians but remained silent. He continued with his apology and finally said, “Those of you that have only booked to go to Bethlehem can go to Jericho as well for free.”

At this point his offer seemed superfluous as Bethlehem hadn’t even been reached. Finally after an hours wait our driver turned up and I climbed into the people carrier with three Americans, a south African and two French people and we headed off to Bethlehem. I considered the number of jokes that could be eked out of the balance of nationalities but decided better against saying them out aloud.

My recollections of Bethlehem when I lived in Israel in 1987 was of  a rather sleepy little town that on religious days became swamped with pilgrims. But that was before the partition wall was erected from 2002 onwards and as we approached the border checkout I was shocked and saddened to see just how close the great concrete monstrosity was to the town. Bethlehem was slowly being suffocated.

At one point as we drove we were so close to the wall that I could clearly see the graffiti covering most of the concrete slabs. Even Bansky had made his mark here on a visit. One piece shows a soldier interrogating a donkey  and another a soldier being frisked by a young girl. The wall made me feel sad for the Palestinians.

Once we had been checked through the border crossing we stopped at a shop to pick up our guide and to change cars, the first of many bizarre vehicle changes during the day.

I don’t know why I thought Bethlehem on Christmas Day would be easy, and why I thought it would be a spiritual odyssey because it was quite clearly not going to be either of these.

On arrival at the Church of St Catherine’s, situated  at the end of Mangers Square it was obvious that there was little chance of getting anywhere near to the crusader remains or the main alter. The Church was literally packed to the rafters. From the back we could hear vaguely the Christmas day service being  held but it was just a sea of people and after a few minutes our guide motioned for us to all fight our way back out of the door where still more pilgrims were attempting to come in.

Then we were rushed towards the Church of the Nativity and we were told we wouldn’t be going in because there was a three hour wait. And indeed by the looks of the number of people waiting outside the doors I think that perhaps three hours was being overly optimistic.

At this point the two French people started to whine, like a couple of huge animated mosquito’s. Our guide looked apologetic but as he explained, “This is Christmas Day. What did you expect?”

I declined to reply that we obviously expected to go into the Church of the Nativity. Already disillusioned and disappointed we headed for the Milk Grotto down Milk Grotto Street, lined with shops selling olive wood and mother of pearl carvings which the town is famous for and  although it was good to see the shops doing such a fantastic trade we were again met with hoards of pilgrims at the Grotto. We had a few minutes to pass by the place where Mary’s milk fell to the rock and turned it from red to white. The rock not the milk.

We headed out towards the “Shepherds field”,  where as the Christmas carol goes, “While shepherds watched their flocks by night, the angel of the lord came down and glory shone around.” Except when we arrived the field was closed. At first I though it was a joke, but no our guide explained, “The Catholic Church had closed the field to visitors.”

How on earth anyone could close a field Catholic or otherwise was beyond comprehension, but it was indeed closed.  I mentioned that there were in fact three Shepherd Fields. I remember visiting two of them on my previous foray into town but our guide shook his head and said, “No there is only one field this one. Why would there have been three?” Yes I mused. Why indeed would there be three and why is this one closed?

At this stage I worked out that we had spent all of  three minutes in a church and three minutes in a grotto and that concluded our tour of Bethlehem. The French were ready to begin their own mini riot and I was ready to begin laughing hysterically at what had become  a farcical tour of Bethlehem.

We were driven back to the same shop that we had first been picked up from and were told another car would pick us up to take us to Jericho. At this stage I decided that it would be more productive for me to go back to Jerusalem. But I was told no I have to go to Jericho.

“But I don’t want to go to Jericho. I have been to Jericho and I don’t want to go again “ But our guide was adamant, “No you must go to Jericho. The cars have been arranged.”

“What about the local bus?” I persisted.

“No its Christmas day no local buses.”

Meanwhile the two French people on the verge of rioting had clambered back in to the car. They had insisted on being taken back to the Church of the Nativity to wait upwards of three hours to have a glimpse of  a fourteen pointed star that marks the place of Jesus’ birth.

“They will only get three seconds”, the guide solemnly said as we watched them drive down the road with the same sombre mood of  a funeral possession.

“Why can’t I have my own car like the French.? Why are they so special?”

Before the guide had time to answer, an army tank pulled up and soldiers climbed out armed and ready for action.

They blocked the road off with tanks and motorbikes and I now could see that we were going to be here for some time neither heading for Jerusalem, Jericho or anywhere else for that matter.

I walked up to one of the soldiers and asked “Why the blockade? What’s gong on?”

I was informed politely, “The Palestinian President is in town and will be driving past. Very lucky for you.” the soldier grinned.

I had a different opinion of what he perceived as luck .

By now all I could think of was food. The group had been told that lunch was to be included for free. But I was getting the feeling that would be another  pipe dream.

After what felt like an eternity a cavalcade of cars, bikes and army vehicles began to pass by. It was pretty obvious from the number of security men that in one of the cars behind the blacked out windows there was a person of relative importance but whether it was indeed the Palestinian President could not really be established.

Once they had all disappeared and the tanks had driven off, a car arrived to take us to Jericho via a place for lunch. The car drove into what could only be described as the Palestinian equivalent to the British Greasy Spoon Café. Something was said in Arabic and then we drove to another place ironically called the Shepherds Field  which was open but where we were told we would have to pay for our meal.

After arguing with the restaurateur that we were not paying for the meal, we were given a kebab and a beer for what I suddenly remembered was my Christmas dinner. Whilst at lunch the group had a chance to find out a little bit about each other.

There was Peter an Evangelical from America. He was considering buying an apartment in the new Jewish settlements that were being built on Palestinian land. Dan a young American Jewish boy studying Hebrew in Israel who blamed the Germans for all the problems in Israel. His friend David who thought the Dome of the Rock should be bulldozed down. And the south African lady who thought the four religious quarters of Jerusalem which had established and grown since 1187 should be abolished and merged into one.

And of course me, who tried hard not to voice her opinion, it was after all Christmas day, even Israel deserved a break.

After our meal we were then ferried into another car to be taken to Jericho. The oldest city in the world. On arrival we were told we had forty five minutes and then we would be going back to Bethlehem to be picked up by another driver to then be taken back to Jerusalem.

I tried to show enthusiasm for the old city of Jericho, but once again my memories of the lazy days spent here as a young woman refused to have any connection with what were quite clearly a pile of rocks that could have been from any period in history and there was no proof that these rocks were the ones that Joshua brought tumbling down.

We had no time to visit The Hisham Palace, where I remember the beautiful preserved stone mosaics.

Climbing back into the car we returned to Bethlehem again but this time we were driven down into an underground car park where I can only say my imagination run riot that we were on a drugs pick up. We came to halt for a few minutes and a parcel wrapped in brown paper was handed over and then we drove back to where we had begun our Bethlehem adventure to be picked up by yet another driver and taken back to Jerusalem.

I calculated five cars for one trip. We had spent more time changing cars then visiting the sites of Bethlehem.

Jerusalem is often called Hysterical Jerusalem, but after the insanity of a day in Bethlehem I was relieved to return to what appeared now as the relative calm of the city always at war with itself.

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