The girls were tired and Becky felt a bit off about visiting Bethlehem, so they opted to stay in the room while Chris and I went. For us to visit though, was a convoluted, not scary, not nerve-racking but maybe nerve jarring process.
Bethlehem is part of the Palestinian Territory, so our guide cannot go there. Instead, he drove us to one of the checkpoints in the wall separating the Territory from Israel. There, he called someone and a young man came through the checkpoint to get us. I’ve never been to Checkpoint Charlie but thoughts of that wall, and that checkpoint immediately came to mind (except here there were no guard towers with guards with guns, actually, now that I think about it, I didn’t see any solders – except the lone guy in the guard booth checking credentials, nor did I see anyone with guns). He whisked us past the credential checkpoint, down a long ramp and into an area filled with a few vendors (bread, some good looking fruit, and that Middle Eastern sweet I can never remember – Havla?), into his cab. From there he drove us into Bethlehem proper (never realized it was so close to Jerusalem), and parked at the bottom of a wide, set of stairs. We got out of the cab and he told us to climb as a guide was waiting for us at the top.
Again, this was a bit surreal, as now we’re being handed-off a second time, to a guide whom we do not know what he looks like or even his name. We climb though and soon, through the crowds, a man appears and waves to us. We are the people he has been waiting for, he was told seven, and he already had five (a family from California), so now we’re ready to start. I’m sorry I do not remember his name.
Let me back up here to talk about this for a minute. We were visiting the Church of the Nativity. I’d been 23 years ago when it was still under Israeli control and honestly, was not impressed. I found it unkept and manger square a bit cheesy. I warned Chris about this because my memory recalled the poor state of the church being blamed on the constant in-fighting between the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic churches as to who got to do what with regard to control of the church. He still wanted to go.
Fast forward to the present. Let me tell you right now, December 29th is not a day you want to visit this church … ever. Here’s why – five days after the Catholic Christmas Eve is when they do an annual cleaning of the church, basically between the Roman Catholic Christmas and the Greek Orthodox Christmas (I think the Armenian one is later in January). Every year, apparently, a fight breaks out between the Greek Orthodox monks and the Armenian monks (so much so, that apparently both groups bring in reinforcements from other monasteries for this day) and on Tuesday, we walked right into the middle of the fray. No kidding, there were bloody monks, police and everything amongst huge crowds of pilgrims and tourists.
Catholic Church/Sanctuary next to Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
Our guide though, made the best of the situation though as the Palestinian police closed the church and would not let anyone in (lest the monks start fighting again). So our guide took us over to the Catholic church (sort of to the side of the other church) and after talking to one of the monks there (who stayed out of the rioting), in Italian, gained us admission to the courtyard, church and an area below the church with a door, which had a whole through which we could see the actual area of Jesus’s birth. Then through schmoozing with the police officers, got everyone a peek through the side door of the main church, so that they could at least see it (but no one was allowed to actually step inside and once one of the other monks saw us, the police quickly closed that door).
Now our guide quickly hurried us from the square, believing there would be no way the church would open that day, and navigated us through some streets of the town (where by the way we saw plenty of Christmas santas and a store called Star & Bucks café with a familiar logo – very funny), to a souvenir store that sold all sorts of things, olive wood carvings, jewelry, holy oil and we were given a brief description of their wares and tempted to buy something. Our guide left and told us our driver would return shortly to bring us back to the checkpoint. The third hand-off of the day.
Some of the stuff was actually beautiful, especially the olive wood pieces but I know that while everyone says they are manufactured locally, I can’t help wonder if they are really made somewhere else like China.
When we spy our driver at the front of the store, we make our way to him to leave but the store owner insists we share some hospitality with him and offers us a variety of beverages first of which we take some Turkish coffee. We enjoy that and then follow our driver to his taxi and return to the gate, which is now overflowing with people returning home, as the work day has ended. We navigate up the ramp, moving like salmon swimming the long way through the returning throng, through the gate, where the driver explains who we are to the guard in the booth, so they do not ask for our credentials and wait for Moshe’s imminent return.
Honestly, the whole experience left me feeling a bit sad. I understand the need and desire for the wall but to be able to spend more time in an easily accessed Palestine would have been interesting and engaging too. I failed to mention as we drove along the wall in Israel, it’s plain, and untouched, and there actually is space between it and anything else but in Palestine, it butts up against everyday life and is adorned with graffiti, some beautiful works of art, some messages of peace and some violent and what I found really interesting about that, were all the messages were written in English.
Moshe returns us to our hotel, and we agree to meet the next morning at 9:00. We gather the girls and head downstairs to the bar area, as we skipped lunch we can all do with a snack. We enjoy an Israeli plate (hummus, tahini, hard-boiled egg, pickles) and not so much enjoy an assorted cheese plate (we found most of the cheeses bland and really the Israeli plate was enough for the four of us). A couple of glasses of wine and soda and three games of Rummy Cube later, we’re ready to head to dinner.
Earlier, we had the hotel make us a reservation at Dolphin Yam (aka Sea Dolphin), and walked over there – about a 10 – 15 minute walk. It’s nice, the location of this hotel, that we can walk to dinner, as opposed to the last time we were here. And surprisingly, once we get close, Becky remembers the location and navigates us right to the restaurant.
We’d eaten here twice on our last trip and remember the fried calamari being amazing, so we get an order of that to share. They seem to have expanded the menu a lot since then, so Sammi is happy that she can get pasta, while Becky tries the tuna steak in a spicy tomato sauce, Chris goes for the special – a trio of shrimp, scallop and a fish (yes, it’s not kosher), and I have some grilled Baramundi. That along with the seven or eight assorted mezze they put out, leaves us quite full but so much so that we can’t enjoy the chocolate soufflé cake for dessert. Oh, forgot, we had a bottle of our favorite Gewürztraminer from Yarden (all their wines are local) with dinner and Becky actually partook in a glass too. I can’t remember the final cost of this meal, but it’s definitely the most expensive we had – I’ll have to see if Chris remembers.
After dinner, we return to the hotel and Chris and I try to get a drink at the lobby bar but no one seems on duty. There is however a “concert” going on, a woman playing the piano and a man playing a sax, or horn, can’t remember. Either way, looking at the clientele, I’m again reminded of the Catskills.