Israel Trip: Bethlehem & West Bank
(continued from Israel Trip: Jerusalem - Old City)
After some much-needed nourishment on this busy tour day, our group hopped back on the bus and headed to the afternoon portion of our tour -- a trip into the West Bank to Bethlehem.
While Bethlehem is only a short drive from Jerusalem, since it is a city under Palestinian control, there was a certain amount of shuffling necessary to get our group across the checkpoint.
Our Israeli guide dropped us off at the check point, and passed us off to a Palestinian guide, who took over our tour for the next several hours.
We pulled directly up to the ominous border wall:
Our Israeli guide wasn't allowed to cross the border into the West Bank, and our Palestinian guide appeared to be bending a few rules by meeting us on the Israeli side to bring us through, since he told us quickly to act as if he wasn't a part of our group as he speed-walked us through the checkpoint.
With an American passport, we had no trouble whizzing through the checkpoint, but it was certainly a strange and unsettling feeling to walk through the barred walkways and cross the space between the two territories.
Once we reached the other side, we hopped on a new bus, and were suddenly navigating the streets of Bethlehem in the West Bank. If we thought traffic in Israel was insane, it was 5 times as "boisterous" in Palestine. Honking, shouting, weaving, waving, and we even saw a man literally pushing his car down the street with a LOONG line of cars honking and waiting behind him.
In Bethlehem, the signs no longer had the Hebrew translations we had been seeing. Now we saw Arabic, English and Spanish. In fact, our new guide spoke fluent English and Spanish and began translating his commentary into both languages (for our Venezuelan tour companions). Since Bethlehem is primarily a Christian town, and a very popular location, it attracts many Christian and primarily Catholic, Spanish-speaking tourists. Ironically, I was actually able to understand his Spanish a little easier than his English, because of his accent.
Our first stop was Johnny's Souvenier Shop, where we were able to use their restroom and, conveniently, spend a little time shopping. I'm sure this is a "deal" worked out with the shop and the tour guides, but hey...it was a great place to buy some trinkets and souveniers in our very rushed day of touring.
Bethlehem specializes in carved olive wood creations. Some of these detailed and intricate creations were priced as high as $5,000 or more.
We picked a much smaller, less-complicated version as a family souvenier of our visit to Bethlehem.
After our group was finished shopping, we had a few minutes of time to kill (evidently the Church of the Nativity was EXTREMELY crowded), so our guide took on a brisk walk through the city to see the Calle de la Estrella -- the street where locals, not tourists, believe Joseph and Mary walked through Bethlehem just before Jesus was born.
We met our bus just off the main road, and started heading toward the Church of the Nativity.
As we drove there, our guide informed us that the church was VERY crowded, and he was going to split us into two groups so that he could sneak half of us in through the front entrance of the "main attraction" and the other half he would escort through the exit door.
Having no idea what he was talking about, we just nodded and followed instructions! We walked into the church through a little door on the side.
Ben and I were in the group that our guide weaseled into the front of the line. He had us take off our tour stickers and enter as if we were "locals" coming to worship at the church.
We were then hustled into a mass of people, all trying to fit into this tiny little door. Evidently the tour groups that had been there waiting a long while were NOT happy with our immediate entry -- and actually joined together to block us from going down with their group. A woman across from me stared me down shaking her head over and over again as if I was the Devil. I can't blame them for being irritated, but we were just following our guide's instructions!
Eventually, we did make it down the tiny stairway and into a small basement room FILLED with people, draped walls, and lots and lots of lanterns.
Having spent all our time getting into the church and trying to sneak into the front of the line, we weren't totally sure WHAT we were in line to see. There's nothing like using deception and force to skip in front of God-fearing pilgrims so that we could see the location of Jesus's birth in a timely fashion. I may be wrong, but I'm pretty sure Jesus would not have approved.
In any case...here it is -- the presumed location where Mary gave birth to Jesus, marked by a 14 point star, representing the 14 stations of the cross.
And around the corner, an altar where Mary lay Jesus down in a manger.
Unfortunately, my experience witnessing these two holy locations left me feeling kind of disappointed. The sardine-like crowds, the hanging lanterns, the church, and the speed in which we whizzed through the underground grotto was NOTHING like what I imagine the night and location of Jesus' birth would have resembled. I found that walk-through Nativity reenactments we've experienced at churches in the US at Christmas-time were much more effective at transforming my mind to that dark night in a stable.
But then, I guess we did cheat and lie to get to the front of the line, so what did I expect, really?
When we emerged from the cave, we landed back up in the main hall of the church, where I was able to take a moment and appreciate some open-space and beautiful light along the columns of the church.
Next, we took a glimpse at the original mosaic flooring of the original fourth century basilica (built between 327 and 333 AD) while our guide told us a little more about the original and current basilicas.
While it was beautiful and intricate, unfortunately, I don't remember much about who added the artwork or when it was added.
Next, we quickly walked into the other main attraction of the area - Saint Catherine's Church - where internationally televised Christmas cermonies are held each year.
This is also where the baby Jesus used in those famous processionals is housed throughout the year.
Outside, at Manger Square, we took a quick look at the front entrance of the Church of the Nativity (since we had come in from a side door).
The entryway had been enclosed and made smaller over the years, and is now called the "Door of Humility".
Though it wasn't quite what I expected, and it was awfully rushed and crowded, we enjoyed our journey to Bethlehem. Certainly, we'll have a distinct memory to refer back to each Christmas as we teach our kids the story of Jesus' birth.
Most of all, we appreciated the opportunity to cross into the West Bank and experience a taste (though small) of the Palestinian section of the Holy Lands.
Back on the Israeli side of the checkpoint, we got back on our bus and concluded our guided tour for the day -- but NOT our adventures.
As our guide was driving us to the various hotels to drop each person off, Ben and I were going to be let off at second drop-off stop, where we were going to call Grandpa to come and pick us up.
I got a little over-confident.
As we were driving down the street, I looked out and recognized Chuck's condo to our left. Thinking I was being helpful (to both our guide and to save Grandpa a drive), I told our guide he could let us off there and we could walk, since we were staying just down the street, so he didn't have to drive us all the way to the hotel. "Sure!" he said, "That would be great." And we hopped off the bus, and he drove away.
Remember when I mentioned that everything in Jerusalem is made from the same Jerusalem stone? Oh, and Mom, remember that time in grade school that I "ran away" and you shouted down the street "You're going the wrong way!" Why couldn't I remember that I have a horrible sense of direction? Yeah...we were NOWHERE close to my uncle's condo.
So there were were, sitting at some random intersection in Jerusalem, not sure how to get home. At the time, we still thought we were pretty close to the condo, and tried to look around to see if we could figure out how to get there.
*sigh*. I'm always lost.
I took some photos of the street names and we weighed our options:
- Call Grandpa and explain to him and Grandma what we had done and see if they could figure out how to find us.
- Hail a cab, and have 'em take us to the hotel we were *supposed* to be dropped off at, so we could call Grandpa and everyone would be none-the-wiser.
- Call Uncle Chuck, and see if he could help us navigate back to his condo.
Since we weren't sure how difficult communcation would be with a taxi driver would be, and we DIDN'T want to worry Grandma and Grandpa, we went with option #3. Uncle Chuck to the rescue. Thanks to Google Maps, he was able to figure out where we were and came right away to meet us.
We were NOWHERE close to where we thought we were.
We decided not to mention our little adventure to Grandma and Grandpa (until now!) Thanks Chuck for rescuing us! I'll try not to make dumb mistakes like that again!
Since we were out and about, Chuck decided to take us to another lookout point, called Talpiot, before we headed home.
There we took in another amazing view of the city from up on a hill. As the sun was setting, it was a gorgeous backdrop and a great way to end our touring day.
See...sometimes, things have to go a little wrong in order to make opportunities for great experiences. :)
It's nice that Uncle Chuck was such a good sport about our face-palm mistake.
As we headed back to the condos, I took a photo of the condo buildings -- I would NOT mistake another building for his again -- at least not on this trip!
We met up with Grandma and Grandpa at the condo (and let Uncle Chuck get back to work, which he had interrupted him from), and then headed back out to a sweet little neighborhood called Ein Karem for some dinner.
We found an Italian restaurant that was open and ate up on the rooftop. Though the service was slightly lacking, it was a beautiful night and especially nice to sit down for a few hours and relax after our VERY long and overwhelming day!
Then we topped the night off with some gelato for dessert.
What a whirlwhind day! This sign says it all...
Israel Trip Wrap-Up:
- Israel Trip: Getting Ready to Go
- Israel Trip: Layover in Chicago
- Israel Trip: Traveling Across the World
- Israel Trip: Jerusalem - The Old City
- Israel Trip: Bethlehem & West Bank
- Israel Trip: Yad Vashem & Ben Yehuda Street
- Israel Trip: An Israeli Wedding
- Israel Trip: Mount of Olives
- Israel Trip: City of David
- Israel Trip: Sea of Galillee
- Israel Trip: Kibbutz, Gaza & Shabbat
- Israel Trip: Dead Sea & Ein Gedi
- Israel Trip: The Food