Israel Solo Backpacking Journal (Part 2)
Wednesday Feb 11th:
Well I survived the night and it’s beginning to finally sink in that I am on the other side of the world in Israel, the literal birthplace of Christianity and much of western civilization as we know it. Breakfast was served in a lovely common space and it consisted of hard boiled eggs, toast and cereal. I was on the road by 10:30 (early for someone who barely knows what day it is) and walked the 20 minutes or so to the Jaffa Gate.
I spend the morning just wandering about and seeing what there is to see. It's quite the place. A mix of Jews, Christians and Muslims all within the same walls. One minute there is the wailing of a Muslim prayer and then there are a bunch of Orthodox Jews walking by giving their own whispered prayers. I purchased a SIM card with 3gb of data (for the price of a few text messages back home) so I could find my way around. I also got my hair cut by a Muslim barber because I’m very multicultural like that.
I then decided I should probably do some touristy things so I went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which turned out to be lame. It's sad how all these interesting places just get massive churches stuck on top of them. Hundreds of people were lined up to kiss some random stone which most likely is about as significant as any other stone. I then went to the Western Wall which is also an entertaining experience. The Jews go into this trance-like state and bob their heads back and forth like a Pentecostal at a Hillsong show. It's all a little odd. They also all have various levels of showoffness, presumably based on their level of devotness. Some with just the head covering, some with hats, hair, tassels, boxes on their heads, the works! The wall itself is very cool to see but I guess you must need to be Jewish to get to the head bobbing level. I then tried to go on Temple Mount but my backpack was too big so I wasn't allowed onto it, in case I’m the type who likes to blow himself up.
Next I went to The Garden Tomb which was by far my favourite place thus far. So peaceful and genuine. Like most places in Israel, there is no way to really know if this place actually holds any historical significance but they did an excellent job of creating an atmosphere that allows the imagination to wander back in time. I got to have communion with an American church group which was pretty special. They ended their service without singing anything and with me being a good Brethren boy this just wouldn’t do. So I asked if we could sing "I have decided to follow Jesus" and they asked me to lead them in it which I gladly did. At the end of the song, one of the women was in tears and she later told me it was because her teenage son had sung along and it was the only time she had ever seen him sing in public. The Garden Tomb is that sort of place.
Then I went back to Temple Mount (after dropping off my bomb bag) but now it was closed so I still couldn't see it! Instead I went to Gethsemane. Again there was a church over the top of it but they had left a little garden with some of the world's oldest olive trees, some dating back around a thousand years. Some of these trees may well have begun to grow when Jesus walked among them. I then hiked up the Mount of Olives but there isn't much to see at the top, except another church of course. As anyone who knows me can attest to, I am terrible at directions, so much so that I managed to start walking down the wrong side of the hill and was headed into East Jerusalem. It was getting dark and I didn’t realize it at the time but I was later informed that East Jerusalem is not the ideal place for a Christian tourist at night. Fortunately I have no trust in my own navigational skills and so I asked my phone to show me the way home. It was night by the time I got back to the hostel but I survived.
Back at the hostel I got talking with some of the guys in my room. I met three Christians. One is an older gentleman from Switzerland who worked for YWAM for a number of years after he was saved through their mission. He is now doing research about various Bible "puzzles" including hidden codes in the Bible. He gave me a copy of his writings to read which I soon discovered were the rantings of someone who had gone very ywammy indeed. Lukas is from Germany and was serving at a home for holocaust survivors over the last few weeks. He was saved through the YMCA which I was shocked to learn. Apparently in Germany that group is still Christian. Nick is from Montreal. He was saved in Scotland while backpacking. He got lost and prayed to "the universe" for help. The universe responded by sending two Christian hikers who led him to Mr. universe Himself on the journey home. My favourite part of traveling has always been the people you meet and the stories you hear. We chatted the evening away and now I shall sleep.
Thursday February 12th:
I started the day by having breakfast with Lukas which consisted of fake Nutella on bread (they really have no idea how to do breakfast here). Then we headed to the Western Wall for a tour of the wall foundations which are in tunnels underground. It was really interesting to see the original stones from 2000+ years ago! Then we finally went up on Temple Mount. It is amazing to think how much history is here and the role it will play in the future.
We went back to the hostel to rest our legs before continuing our adventures. We took the tram to Yad Vashem which is a memorial for the victims of the Holocaust and an education centre to ensure they are not forgotten. One of the many painful stories that was shared through video testimonies was that of a Jewish man who, when he was just a boy of 13, was forced to rip the golden teeth out of the mouths of his fellow Jews after their bodies were removed from the gas chambers. It served as a clear reminder to me of how evil man can be and how in need we are of God's forgiveness. People are messed up, not just Nazis, but everyone.
We then got some pitas, hummus and olives in the market and had some supper in the main floor of an office building which houses the Jerusalem Prayer Tower on the 14th floor and King Of Kings church on the main floor. We went up to the 14th floor for a young adults worship evening with King of Kings church. I always enjoy checking out churches and meeting Christians from around the world. The service was conducted in Hebrew but I was able to sing along to most of the songs in English as they were all ones I knew. After chatting with some of the people from the church (basically all Jews have excellent English) we headed back to the Citadel hostel. On the way we had the unpleasant experience of being harassed by some very unprofessional policemen near the Jaffa Gate. They aggressively questioned us and made us empty our pockets before finally letting us leave.
Friday February 13th
I had another unsatisfying breakfast of hummus, pitas and olives with Nick and Lukas then we headed to the Damascus gate to meet a friend Lukas had met while in Nazareth. Her name is Alita and she is from Argentina but is working in Israel now. We got the 21 bus from Damascus gate to a town just beside Bethlehem where she volunteers at a Catholic home for disabled kids called Hogar Nino Dios. It was a really nice facility complete with a therapeutic pool, classrooms, kitchen, playground, and basically anything else you could need.
We then went to the Church of the Nativity which is a ridiculous scene with people crowding around a hole in the wall and kissing the floor while surrounded by ugly lamps and tapestries. It's a crazy and disturbing sight. Fortunately we didn't need to wait in line because Alita's friend who worked at the church took us in the back way! The one part I did like was Joseph's cave which was more or less the way it would have looked 2000 years ago and very few tourists bothered to go there. After leaving the church we were stopped by a very exuberant and friendly man who insisted we try his tea which he informed us was the best in the whole country so of course we had to try it.
We tried to get a taxi to The Shepherds Field but it turns out there are two Shepherds Fields and we went to the wrong one so we had to walk to the correct one. It was easier than arguing with the taxi driver over price anyway. You have to fight for the price of everything here. Apparently there are at least two versions of every historical site here. Generally there is the one the Catholic Church named the location at some point in history and the one that archeologists later determined to be the more likely actual location. On the way there we happened to walk past an original Banksy. The Shepherd's Field was on a hill overlooking Bethlehem and had a small chapel and gardens much like the garden tomb. It was a really nice spot for quiet prayer and reflection.
We had some lunch at what we thought was a restaurant across the street. In reality it was just a bar with no kitchen but they insisted we stay and they could get us food. The bartender sent someone to go get us falafels from another restaurant while we had a drink. I always love a good entrepreneur! It was also freezing in there because their heater was not working and there was a cold rain outside. I tried a great beer called Taybeh which was brewed by some local Christians apparently.
We got a taxi (after another argument on price) to drive Alita to the children's home where she will be staying for the weekend and us back to the Israeli border. Walking across the border was quite an experience. There was a massive wall with barbed wire, snipers, metal detectors, everything. However, even with all that security they didn't even look at our passports. They just asked us where we were from and I said Canada and they waved me through. Apparently being white is all the ID you need here.
We then haggled for a taxi back to Jerusalem. We were wet and tired so we just had some pita and hummus which I guess works for every meal here then went to bed.
Saturday February 14th
I didn't do much of anything today but I guess that is appropriate since it is Shabbat (sabbath). There are still a lot of things open in the Christian and Muslim quarters around the old city but the Jewish quarter is all closed. I slept in until around 10 then me, Lukas and Nick went for a walk to find a good cup of tea. We wanted to have tea on a rooftop Cafe which proved hard to find. We eventually got directed to the Austrian Hospice which had a nice, if overpriced Cafe. Their rooftop was closed for Shabbat but they had some outdoor balconies that were open (don’t ask me why one can be open and the other must be closed, it’s Israel). We enjoyed our overpriced tea with the warm sun shining on us for the first time all week.
After this, Nick headed to the Mount of Olives while me and Lukas headed back to the hostel for lunch. Lukas cooked a nice spaghetti with ham and tomato sauce (German’s know what a real meal is). Then Lukas also headed to the Mount of Olives while I just relaxed at the hostel. I did some research on the West Bank as me and Nick intend to travel there tomorrow. Nick met a Samaritan woman in Tel Aviv and he said he was interested in learning more about Samaritans so she got him in touch with her son who has a friend in a Samaritan village near Nablus in the West Bank. This friend offered to host Nick for a night and he invited me to join him so we are going tomorrow! We originally looked at renting a car and I checked out some rental companies in east Jerusalem which insure the West Bank (Jewish companies don’t allow you to drive in Palestinian territory) but then we decided to take the bus instead which was much cheaper and probably safer.
Later in the day we all met up for some falafels at a restaurant near the hostel and also scored some free pizza that an American family had left behind (yeah, I’m cheap). There we got talking to a Christian Israeli who was a historian and we got an insiders perspective on the Israel/Palestine conflict. It certainly is a complicated one. We then went back to the hostel and crashed fairly early. Big day tomorrow!