Embracing the Uncertain: A Walk in Palestine
By Morgan Frantz
Frantz is a senior Communication Studies major and an adventurer in search of adrenaline.
In the film Jurassic Park, one of the most memorable scenes for me is when Dr. Alan Grant directs an archaeological excavation of a velociraptor. Grant was working with new and old technologies, clothes dirty from sweat and Montana soil. The dust on his hat likely from digs in Algeria, Brazil, Spain and Australia. Yes, the five-year-old me wanted to travel like Dr. Alan Grant. A brief volunteer trip to Ethiopia when I was 14 was a step in the right direction and it only served to whet my appetite for even more. This drive to experience other cultures culminated in the decision to click “send” on my study abroad application where I would be living in Florence, Italy, during the spring of 2018. I was stoked. Beyond stoked. Ready to absorb other cultures and test my resolve as a traveler.
While students around me were making plans to go west and north throughout Europe, I set my gaze south and east. Prague, London, Paris and Barcelona are all amazing cities, but I needed an adventure, not a tourist excursion. Planning to take a surf trip to Morocco in April, Jerusalem was my immediate destination. I purchased a flight, packed my bags, and invited my roommate Kyle along for the ride. Two days later, Tel Aviv was rushing up to meet our Airbus 320 as we touched down after a short flight and long layover in the cold, Bulgarian airport that is Sofia International. After dropping our bags at the hostel, and with less than an hour of sleep the night before, we immediately set off to explore the historic city.
The following afternoon, a moving, thought-provoking hike onto the Mount of Olives turned into a steep, shin-splitting descent as we made our way to a bus stop near the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem. As we boarded our Palestinian bus, I remembered some facts: Israeli buses do not drive to Bethlehem and it is impossible to rent an Israeli car to drive to Palestine due to expensive and unavailable insurance policies. Furthermore, the area was just a little unstable due to a recent American foreign policy decision.
Upon boarding Palestinian Bus #231, I paid the one-way ticket fare and after receiving several sideways glances from the other passengers, immediately realized that we were out of place. Line 231 set off for Bethlehem, weaving and winding through Jerusalem seemingly on a serious time crunch. In Israel, and especially in Palestine, a bus horn is not simply a feature to convey displeasure at the horrible driving of those around you, but a necessary piece of automotive equipment.
Crossing into Palestine
A late January day that was relatively warmer than most others and somewhat sunny with intermittent clouds, changed dramatically upon crossing the border into Palestine. The clouds covered the sky, fog set in; a thunderstorm seemingly minutes away from unleashing a torrential fury upon a continually eroding landscape.
Originally planning to disembark in Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem, and walk to the city center, the bus driver motioned for us to disembark early. Now on the corner of Hebron Road and Derech Beit Jala, we were much closer to the historical sites that we wanted to visit. As we left the bus, a man approached us. “If you’re looking to get to the best sites, I can take you to all of the churches and to the refugee camp.” We replied with a quick “no, thank you” and began walking away from him down the road. He followed directly behind us, explaining his deals and begging us to barter with him. But no, we were determined to experience real Palestine, not interact with it from behind a window.
Minutes later, on our way to visit Rachel’s Tomb, a venerated burial site of the Hebrew matriarch, we were stopped by a middle-aged man. “Where are you going? Bethlehem is the other way! You’re headed back to Jerusalem!” Convinced that he was trying to sell us something, we waved him off. “No, no, we’re going to visit Rachel’s Tomb.” His faced changed. “Rachel’s Tomb is not easy to get to, you should go the other way.” We ignored him again, thinking that if we acknowledged him much more, his sales technique would embolden him further. In retrospect, he may have just been offering concerned advice.
We pressed on towards our original target, progressively feeling less at ease with each step. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a vehicle approaching fast. An unmarked, black SUV. As simply an observation of my surroundings, this SUV didn’t initially strike me as out of place until the driver brought it quickly under rein and to a speedy halt. Hopping out, he yelled in a tense voice “هل انتم أمريكي؟” (“Are you Americans?”). Despite having studied Arabic for three semesters, I decided to pretend that I didn’t hear him and kept walking. In my peripheral vision, I could see the driver wait a moment before jumping back into the unmarked SUV, full of young Arab men, which followed us for a minute before driving off. This may have been completely innocent: perhaps they wanted to simply give us some proper directions, but the ensuing adrenaline rush was enough to convince me that I wanted to get out of there sooner rather than later.
We eventually reached a point where Rachel’s Tomb was within 200 meters, but we couldn't see it and the GPS wanted us to proceed forward, down an even more unnerving road. This GPS had not always given us a correct location, so I conferred with my travel companion about our next directional decision. We both agreed to head back and make our way towards the Church of the Nativity, then back down the street we hand just previously navigated.
Walking past the spot of the encounter that occurred not even 15 minutes earlier put me on edge once again. But within no time at all, we were taking new routes and breaking trail. Wanting to avoid the seemingly narrow, and potentially even more “action-packed,” side-roads, I opted to direct us on a less overwhelming street to get to the Church of the Nativity. Litter was scattered everywhere, building construction in progress…or perhaps demolition. Shops being renovated... or maybe abandoned. The view was solemnly amazing as we walked alongside a hill that overlooked neighborhoods of tan buildings, trees obscured by fog, and streams that snaked along the valley floor; the grey atmosphere a symbol of collective, continual trudging.
Spotting a staircase that would serve as a shortcut, Kyle took over as guide and led us to the base of the off-white steps. Ascending the staircase, I spotted an informal travel advisory. Inscribed in black, nearly permanent, spray-painted graffiti was the word “Jihad,” written in English as if the author specifically wanted Americans to see it.
Arriving at the Church of the Nativity a few minutes later, I let out an internal sigh of relief. As a self-described adventurer, I would never have thought that I’d be so happy to see tourists, American tourists. I instantly felt a little safer although I was still conscious of our present location.
In the middle of a renovation authorized by the Palestinian Authority, men and women in white lab coats hustled about on scaffolding, painstaking documenting and restoring the pillars and artwork. We looked around for a few minutes in this grand hall and took our place in line.
The time was approximately 4:00 p.m. and we had been waiting for almost 20 minutes without having moved any closer to the room containing the supposed birthplace of Jesus Christ. Not wanting to walk back to the bus stop in the dark, I was antsy to get on the move. “If we’re still here at 4:30-ish, do you want to just bounce and head back to the bus stop?” I sheepishly asked my companion. “Well, we’ve already come this far, I think we should continue to wait until we get in,” he replied. Immediately feeling like a boy instead of a man, I quickly adjusted my opinion. “Oh, of course. Yeah, we can stick it out.” In the ensuing internal dialogue with myself, I determined that I had surely lost some manliness points there.
About five minutes later, several Arab teens were wandering around the church looking at the sights when they inadvertently began to enter our line. A Palestinian guard perched 15 feet to their rear called out to them, saying “"شباب! شباب! (or “Guys! Guys!”) and pulled them aside to direct them to a different line. This issue was of no real importance and resolved quite easily, but it seemed to trigger the worldview of a man standing in front of me. “F-ing Arabs,” he grunted. Not restraining the disgust that snaked its way across the features of his face, nor caring who heard him. He issued his opinion as a statement of fact; a condemnation of an entire culture and ethnic group that he neither understood nor wished to understand.
‘The Hall of Eternal Waiting’
The line sped up and we eventually descended into a narrow opening and subsequent flight of stairs that opened into a small room lit by candles, Middle Age paintings, and flashing camera lights: the place millions regards as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. The prayers and tears of the faithful echoed throughout this holy room, every man and woman eager to get a glimpse of where their savior lay 2,000 years before.
I took some pictures, said a quick prayer, and up we went back into what I came to regard as the ‘”Hall of Eternal Waiting.’” We exited the church and took in the sights of “‘touristy” Bethlehem:’ a big plaza surrounded by nice buildings housing gift shops, restaurants, produce markets and clothing outlets. After taking a minute to view “‘expensive” Bethlehem,’ I checked the map on my phone and set us on a course back to the bus station.
Comforted by the fact that we were not the only Americans in Palestine, and having seen several other solo travelers, I was feeling much better about the walk back. Halfway to our bus stop, we were meandering up a winding road with few cars and fewer people. Two young, cheerful Palestinian boys with bright red and blue balloons were walking in the opposite direction. Perhaps they had been talking about how they hated school or about which soccer player was their favorite. Maybe they had just received those balloons as rewards for good grades or perhaps they wanted to see what would happen if they released their newfound helium toys from a high point with the hope that some other boys in a far-off land would find their balloon experiment.
No matter what their original conversation had been, they adjusted the topic upon seeing us. Without breaking stride, they began to emphatically sing a song for us. Enthusiastically throwing their arms, smiling throughout the first verse, and leaping as they hit the chorus. Initial perception would be that they were singing a song for us, the weird-looking Americans that they stumbled upon. But no, they weren’t singing a song for us; it was a song at us. The type of song you reserve for an opponent before a match; a taunt meant to inspire fear.
Sitting in class on Monday, two days later, I was on edge: still antsy from the adrenaline of being in Palestine. I looked at the clock and painfully realized that two hours of class needed to be endured before I could retreat to the refuge that was my apartment; alone with my thoughts to just to breathe and absorb my weekend. In stressful exasperation, I thought that if I talked about it I could get some relief right away; there was greater culture shock for me coming from Israel to Italy than there was from America to Italy. I tried explaining what I’d experienced but the responses weren’t satisfying; the listener either in awe of what had happened or dismissive as if they would have reacted better in the situation.
I let time pass and began to write down my thoughts. It’s not a heroic tale or even a dramatic adventure, but it’s my adventure, my tale; this drama helping me to understand myself and the world around me in more ways that I could have never imagined.
To satisfy my fading adrenaline rush, perhaps all I need to do is pack my bags, grab my journal and find another adventure.