“Why do you travel?”
Squinting up towards the sky I could feel the glaring heat of the desert sun starting to burn my face. The question had caught me slightly off guard.
I paused for a moment watching the cardamom seeds dancing in my coffee. To understand other culture? To meet and learn about those who live in a world I can’t understand? To make the world feel like a smaller place?
Like he could read my mind he slowly nodded with a smile.
“That’s why I want the wall to fall. That’s what I don’t believe in a two-state solution. How can we all heal by creating more division?”
Palestine was not what I expected. Or at least, not what the media wanted me to expect.
Around me, the west bank continued its day-to-day life. People drank coffee, tea or the locally brewed beer. Shopkeepers laughed as they exchanged banter with their customers. Church bells rang against the call of prayer as this secular country just went about living another day in Jericho.
The roads may not have been as well-kept as its Israeli counterparts, the greenery rolls into the desert the further inland you go, the shops perhaps are not as well stocked as they once were. But beyond these difference, why were so many tourists scared to cross the checkpoints?
Why had so many people written off Palestine as a war-torn land that was to be avoided at all costs?
A journey beyond the wall…
“Stop!” In the silence of the car, it sounded like the biggest sound boom of them all. He was merely talking in his normal soft tone but to us, it was something louder.
Thirty minutes before we had crossed the checkpoint, polite hellos had been exchanged alongside cars. The number plates couldn’t continue the journey but the politeness would.
Everything on face value was nice in the West Bank however hard that is to believe.
After a brief exchange between our Israeli Jewish driver and our Palestine Secular driver, we were off. It was like they were old friends who didn’t catch up enough. In reality, they were old friends who weren’t allowed to catch up enough…
“These are the settlements” he said gesturing towards modern apartment blocks that it didn’t take a geographical scientist to realise were on the wrong side of the wall. But he didn’t claim that he just told me a fact.
That was the point I trusted him. That was the point I knew I would get benefit from this tour. That I knew I wasn’t going to be fed just one side of the story…
“The others. They are the Bedouin” he muttered as he shook his head. A small child ran through the dirt of his back yard to collect clothes. He looked happy. His mother looked on at him with pain in her eyes before throwing a dismissive glance towards us.
The Bedouin are a traditionally nomadic set of people who live in the West Bank. I guess if they had my passport we would call them hippy ex-pats. But they don’t, so let’s call them a title we can comprehend. Many of them now live in the south under government settlements but many chose not to live in places like those. They live in huts like these. Children smile and parents worry. We are not here to judge why.
“But can you travel?” I finally ask after burning my finger stirring those lip staining seeds as far to the bottom of my cup as I could.
The story that followed involved paths through Israel. A strained and long torn visa relationship with an Israeli. A harsh reality of facing death from taking the wrong turning towards a checkpoint.
I squint up at the sun again, not really wanting to look this guy in the eye. The UN he says, “The united nothing”. I didn’t want to take sides, there were problems on both sides of the wall but the traveller within me couldn’t help it.
That is why I get to travel. I don’t need to want it, I just can…
Jericho was a city I wasn’t expecting. People drank coffee, tea or the locally brewed beer. Shopkeepers laughed as they exchanged banter with their customers. Church bells rang against the call of prayer as this secular country lived another day. After touring the monastery we were left to our own devices.
“Explore and enjoy” we were told. I guess for many that would have been a task too hard to fathom. But once you put your name into this tour, you had to leave any preconceived expectations at the door.
I picked up a Barbie doll. It must have been circa 1998. “We don’t get as much modern stuff as we would like around here” the shopkeeper laughed. I told him Barbie’s were not really my thing and he nodded with a smile “You used to be able to get a gun a few doors up.”
The Monastery of Temptation was beautiful. As we took the near empty ski-lift (yep, this isn’t the middle ages) up to it my eyes boggled at the intricate way it was carved into the cliff. After exploring the ruins below and witnessing (as the only witnesses) the tourist film about one of the first settlements on earth my archaeological mind went into overtime.
“Be quick” He whispered. “I need to close”.
The leader of the Monastery held the door ajar as we strolled in. Outside, a gaggle of the only excited tourists here took selfies. “This is not the place” he muttered as we all were amazed at the beauty of the stonework and decoration inside the building. The door slammed shut and a selfie stick came into the corner of my eye. It was time for religion to shut down for the day we hear and I could understand why.
“Are you ready? We shouldn’t talk about the negatives so much” He stood up, picking up the coffee tab on the way as we walked in silence back to the car.
It wasn’t until we drove out the city until anyone spoke.
“But there is no wall here” I questioned looking for a positive. “No, there is not” our new-found friend replied and I sighed with relief.
“They are talking about an electrified moat instead.”
We drive on to Qumran in silence. Sat in the west bank but managed by the Israel National parks it is one of the furthest looks into religious history you will get.
To the naked eye it is just rocks and holes but to a whole religion, it is something more. It was here the Dead sea scrolls were discovered. A look back into times gone by whether you are religious or not.
A group of Christian travellers from Ethiopia share the platform with us. For many, it was the only time they would ever travel abroad. Between their smiles and selfie sticks, they captured happy memories, memories we might be quick to dismiss.
The plans changed suddenly. A Palestinian had just stabbed an Israeli policeman and was shot to death. A detour was to be taken.
I winced at the words. No matter how upsetting I found these stories violence was never the answer. Being someone from a white privileged background that would always be my mindset. I have never had to fight for anything.
Later in the week my parents would call and my friends would whats app me “Are you ok? Did you see the news?
The ironic thing is this happens regularly. Perhaps even weekly. But for it to make international news? That was a big deal.
Someone had filmed the moment a near dead and wounded man lay on the floor before an officer approached and fired the final bullet and memory of his life into his skull. Yes, he had done wrong in his attack but can judge and jury just fall to the person who is better armed.
I write this now sat in Bali, you know, that paradise island of the gods. Last week a man tragically suffering from mental health problems stabbed a policeman to death before an office opened his revolver into his head on the floor. No one calls me here, there are no Facebook messages.
This is Bali, it is a happy place. Why the need for such international concern?
I guess what I am trying to clarify is this: Misery and tragedy happen globally, but the facts aren’t always clarified so wide as they are acknowledged.
We pull into the resort at the dead sea, now pre-determined as the last stop of the day.
By all defining maps, we are still in the Palestine controlled West Bank. As the ticket officer looks over us in despair, however, I know geography hasn’t won here.
“One second. I have it.” Our guide says as he digs into his pocket for the official guide card that allows him to join us.
I kinda want to say fuck it. Stop looking. How much do I want to float in some salty water?
But we all make it in. I float and play around with some dirty mud. Then there is time for a beer at the ‘lowest bar on earth’.
“Try and order the Palestinian beer.” He laughs, knowing they won’t stock it. For a country until a few hours ago I thought was governed by religion I still found it amusing.
Cheers, we shared over a cold beer in one of natures most fascinating, if not so beautiful spots. I imagine he had no clue of what he had given me over the last few hours but what he had done was open my eyes. I wasn’t in the ‘most scary place to visit on earth’ I was in the place I truly wanted to be in no matter what.
LET ME SEND YOU MY BEST TRAVEL TIPS FOR THE MIDDLE EAST…
So why do you travel? Shouldn’t that privilege extend to everyone if they so wish?
We pulled in to be dropped off. My aunt lives there he gestured across the border like we were not killing time at a KFC drive in. One day I’ll be able to visit her again. He said it with pride, but all I heard was hope…
This tour and others I took within the West Bank were with Green Olive Tours on my own dollar. Find more information on their website. Also, check out this great post by my friend Aiden about the Hebron dual-narrative tour.
The situation in the West Bank / Israel and Gaza is forever changing. Check your government advice to the current situation and make your travel plans based on what you are comfortable with. From my experience and time there however the travel warnings were unfounded however I appreciate with such a complex situation these things can change quickly. Be aware and enjoy the journey