My visit to Israel was a religious pilgrimage like so many others I met during my time there, but it was not mine. My grandmother had always wanted to visit the Holy Land and walk where Jesus walked sadly she passed away before she could, so I did that walk for her. I started my pilgrimage at Bethlehem, which seemed fitting since it is the birth place of Jesus Christ and childhood home of King David.
When you first arrive at the check point into the Westbank you are greeted with a wall of concrete and barbed wire. Our guide suggested that we have our passports ready but not to be surprised if they don’t get checked “Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t just depends on how they are feeling on the day” he said with a smile.
After being waved through security by 3 very bored, tired and hot looking Israeli soldiers you walk through these narrow passage ways of concrete and iron bars. It reminded me of cattle yards, I didn’t really know what to expect would be waiting on the other side.
Not the most welcoming entrance for a visitor but once on the other side we came out to an open street with a big welcoming smile from our drivers. The wall on the Israeli side is just grey and goes on forever which is a stark contrast to how it looks on the Palestinian side. It still goes on forever, however the Palestinian people of the Westbank have taken to the wall with spray paint to express themselves. It would be great to spend a day just admiring the creativity in this place on a canvass that represents oppression and loss of freedom to those who live behind it.
Bethlehem is a nice day out for a christian, while I was raised in a christian family I never officially subscribed to the club. My feeling is that you should always be kind, honest , respectful of others and help those in need. That makes you a good person regardless of what you believe in, who you are or what your sexual or relationship preference is. If heaven is really there shouldn’t that get you a ticket in?
Our first stop was at the Shepherds fields where the arch angels descended from heaven to bring news of the birth of a new Messiah as told in the Gopsels. The valley is exactly as it’s name, a field currently yellow and brown due to the hot summer the middle east is experiencing so I prefer to represent it below with a beautiful mural I came across in a nearby churches.
We visited the Milk Grotto a beautiful place of worship where Mary spilt a few drops of breast milk while in hiding before their escape to Egypt. Apparently white powder scrapped from the floor in the grotto is used to aid fertility, anything is worth a try I guess. The things I noticed most about the Milk Grotto is how peaceful it felt perhaps because of the feminine feeling it has.
The main tourist attraction in Bethlehem is The Church Of The Nativity. I found this place quite moving, however it was more to do with the way other people around me were experiencing the church. Once you enter the room which is underneath the church it’s the energy and emotion of the people around you that is quite overwhelming. Already about 30 people were inside singing hymns, lighting candles and bending down to kiss the star that marked the original spot of the nativity. This kind of experience was to become a common occurrence during the rest of my journey through the Holy Land. It was nice to share such a special time with so many people who I didn’t even know. Belief is such a powerful thing and for me I was face to face with people who had just ticked off a major bucket list item and were overwhelmed with emotion and joy simultaneously.
Once the religious experience was over it was time for the retail experience which will be a given if you are with a tour group. Popular items on offer were the Star of David, crucifix made of olive wood and gold or silver. You could spend hundreds however I opted for christmas decorations made from olive trees for $10. If you are not interested in shopping this stop is a good opportunity to sit down with a nice arabic coffee and chat to the locals.
I found the Palestinian people very friendly and happy to sit and chat with you about life on the Westbank. One friendly young man told me that he was wanting to get married but he needed to keep saving so that he could afford an apartment and gold for his wife to be. He also needed to find a girlfriend first, which made us both laugh. Another told me that life was good and everything you see on the news about Palestine wasn’t true, I smiled and said “you know they say the same thing in Egypt”. While I was sitting there an enthusiastic sales person was trying to persuade me to by a hand bag from him only to be told by my new friends to leave me alone. ” If you want to show her your hospitality, go buy her a coco cola she is a guest” said one of my new friends which I thought was very kind.
I also met Palestinians who had never been outside the Westbank before, you need special permission to leave, either medical or religious reasons were considered. If you worked in Israel you can leave and come back but needed to apply and renew your work visa each month or week depending on the job. There is so much in this world that I take for granted.
Sitting there talking with these incredibly kind people made me think about my life and how lucky I am to have the freedom and opportunities I do. It made me think about what it would be like if I too lived here, would I know any different? I think the saddest thing is that life behind a wall has been normalized in Palestine. This was the reality that these lovely people I was chatting with had accepted and were just getting on with life.
Perhaps sharing this experience will not only provide some travel tips but will help change how you see your life and the lives of the lovely people I met that day on the Westbank. I hope one day that the wall will come down peacefully and life will be as it should. Last but not least on the way out the soldiers were not so sleepy, passports, metal detectors and x-rays. No smiles or thank you for coming, I smiled and said thank you for having me.