We were told that our guide couldn't enter Jerusalem, so we'd have to pick him up on the other side of the border. I couldn't tell where the border was, but we picked up the guide at a bus stop. He got on the bus, picked up the mic, and started speaking. At first, I wondered why he was speaking to us in Arabic, but I soon realized that it was just horribly accented English and a really bad mic. The parts of the introduction that I caught told us what we were going to do today: see Jericho, Ramallah, a brewery, Bethlehem, and hear Palestinian propaganda. Well, at least he told us up front. Looking out the window as we drove, the area looked so brown. It was more comparable to Beer Sheva in August than the surrounding areas (like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv) in June. Eventually, we did start passing what were clearly tree farms. And then we hit what looked like the Israel/West Bank border checkpoint. As it turned out, it was just the baptism point. It is well-secured for 2 reasons. 1- it is actually the border with Lebanon. 2-it was filled with land mines a long time ago, and it would be bad if tourists blew themselves up. So, I was thankful there were fences to keep me out of the areas I shouldn't be in. This baptism site is one of the two places on the Jordan river where Jesus was supposedly baptized. Here, the river isn't more than a creek and the "international border" is a piece of rope. You can come from either the Jordanian side or the Israeli side to be baptized, but you're not supposed to swim over the rope. Surprisingly, everybody was respecting that. Maybe it was because that place was filled with positive spirit and nobody trying to be a badass. The positive spirit largely came from a large group from a Texas church. They brought their priest and he was baptising them, one after another as they all cheered each other on. In case their spirit lifted you to the point where you wanted to be baptized, you could buy a swimming suit and baptismal gown at the gift shop and then ask any priest to baptize you. In addition to being baptized though, there were also several people just going in the water to go in, but not really to swim.
From there, we crossed into the Zone A, or Palestinian-controlled area. Out front, there is a big sign that says that it is illegal for Israeli citizens to enter. This is not what all the tour-selling groups said. I asked 3 and they all said that if you have an American passport, you're fine, even if you're an Israeli citizen. The guide explained that the sign only refers to Jewish Israelis. He said that the Palestinians would let anybody in, which appeared to be very true as nobody checked the bus. He then said that the Israeli government didn't want Israelis to come in because they'd see "the truth." I'm reasonably confident that's not the main reason, but that they don't want Israelis getting kidnapped or put in situations that could cause big political messes. Later, somebody confirmed that there had been some gruesome incidents due to Israelis being kidnapped after entering those zones.
In any case, we made our first Zone A stop just outside of Jericho, at The Sycamore. This is supposedly The specific sycamore where the New Testament story of Jesus and the Tax Collector took place. The tree isn't particularly large and so it's hard to buy that it's thousands of years old, but if you use some imagination, you could believe that somebody climbed it, or a tree similar to it, to get a good view. We then stopped at the ruins of Jericho. Jericho is the oldest and lowest city in the world. The modern city of Jericho is a green oasis in a vast, tan desert. It has a ton of banana and date trees and is clearly located on spring. This water is why it was first settled around 8000 BCE. It stood until around 1200 BCE, when Joshua came and the walls came tumbling down, or at least that's how the song goes. Our guide dropped us at the entrance with a Jericho official guide. This guide had about a 2 minute shpiel about Jericho, and then talked about other stuff. He showed us some ancient Jericho excavations and told us a little about the excavators. In about 2 sentences each, he shared the biblical stories of Elijah at the Jericho spring and Joshua. Then, he moved on to tell us about Jesus and the sycamore, Temptation Mountain, and other biblical stories that happened near Jericho. Finally, he pointed out a refugee camp. To be honest, it didn't look any different than the rest of Jericho. He explained that the refugees have been living there since 1948. They only expected to be gone from their homes in the British Mandate for a few days, but that has turned into years. He neglected to mention that many people left the British Mandate because the neighboring governments promised them that they could go home after Israel was annihilated, not because Israel kicked them out. (For fairness, there were also people who left because they felt forced.) Until somebody asked if they had to live in the refugee camp, he didn't mention that they don't have to be there, but they choose to for economic reasons. He then proceeded to spend a lot of time talking about the hardship te checkpoints cause him. All in all, there wasn't much "Jericho" in the Jericho tour, but it was interesting to hear the viewpoint of the guide.
The road we took to the Tabyeh brewery was a gorgeous desert road. It wound through the hills and had some great views, the depth of which no camera can accurately capture. We passed some bedouin homes that were made of corrougated tin. The roofs looked to be held down by rocks, so that they wouldn't blow away. We passed an Israeli settlement, and the guide did a good job of impartially describing the settlers and why they're there. We also passed through an Israeli checkpoint. The two private cars ahead of us both were searched, although the process we saw was very similar to the process the US uses at the US-Canada border, except that one passenger in one car got an airport-style pat down. When it was our turn, the guard didn't even get on the bus, he just checked our guide's papers and let us go with minimal effort.
The trip to the Taybeh brewery was very political, but they are trying to take positive steps to improve their situation. The tour guide mentioned the word "resistance" several times when discussing their business, but seemed to be interested in peaceful resistance, and not the violence we sometimes see. She also spent a lot of time discussing their water issues. Basically, the West Bank has water shortage issues, and the Jewish settlements have their water shut off less than the other areas. All around the West Bank, the homes have large water tanks on the roofs so that when the water is on, the people can fill the tanks to have water for when it's not on. I usually love factory tours and seeing how things are made, but this wasn't much of a factory tour. Of course, it wasn't much of a factory either. It was a one-room barn-type structure with a lot of tanks. Since they build to order, they only run when they need to, and they weren't running when I was there. We didn't get to see any of the processes, but she explained it a bit to us. Basically, they import ingredients from Europe, add some local water and local labor, and use a very standard process to make a light, clear beer. I had a sample and it was relatively refreshing, although I'm very much not a fan of beer. One other thing they do that's great for the local communities is they also help sell locally-made wine, soap, oil, spices, and other products. By helping their neighbors to self-sufficiency, they are improving the community and increasing the chance that people will be able to peacefully come to another political situation.
On the road to Ramallah, we stopped at a refugee camp that is now basically a city. It has block apartment buildings, schools, shopping centers, and pretty much everything a town would need. I wouldn't really use the word "camp" at all when describing it.
Next, we saw Arafat's tomb. It is in a large fancy building in a large fancy complex and is well-guarded. Even as tourists and not journalists, we were instructed not to take pictures of the buildings behind the tomb building. We were encouraged to take pictures of ourselves with the guards and at the tomb, but most people didn't. You could tell that quite a few of the other tour members were also uncomfortable with visiting the tomb of a known terrorist leader.
We continued through Ramallah. With all of the well-built apartment buildings and shopping malls, it doesn't look war-torn. Plenty of the buildings look nicer than a lot of places where people live in Israel. However, there aren't kids in the streets, so I'm not sure I can declare it as safe as the buildings make it appear to be.
I was very hungry when we finally stopped for lunch at Ce Tu coffee shop and cafe. I ended up sitting with some of the Italians and Spaniards in our group. They were retirees and had some great travel stories to tell as we waited for our food to arrive. The meal was simple- chicken with a side of rice for the meat-eaters, and just the rice for the vegetarians. The rice was yellow, full of vegetables, and spice-spicy (not hot spicy). Combined with the yogurt dip they put on the table and the salad, it was a reasonable, if not super-nutritious lunch. Fortunately, the locals who came to smoke in the restaurant waited until after I was done with the meal to light up. However, my first bites of dessert were a bit gross because of them. When they stopped and I was able to continue my dessert, I realized that it wasn't that great anyway. The top part was a sweet honey-pistachio mixture that I enjoyed, but the bottom part was a tasteless white mass that reminded me of soaked rice. Next, they served coffee and did a grinding demo where they showed us how they put the beans in the grinder and add cardamom. I'm not sure why we had the demo as we didn't have time to buy their coffee, and putting beans into a grinder isn't particularly educational.
After the coffee demo, the guide informed us that we were going to have to skip the city walk that he usually does because the police were blocking off streets for some kind of celebrations. Instead, we were going to see some extra sights in Bethlehem. I was cool with that and thankful that he was smart enough to keep us away from the crowds that apparently have this annually-scheduled "clash with the police" as he put it.
On the way to Bethlehem, we passed a popular checkpoint from the West Bank to Jerusalem. We saw the political graffiti, and the guide pointed out an Israeli watchtower that was blackened because the Palestinians attack and burn it a lot. I appreciated his honesty in admitting and showing us some of the effects of Palestinian violence. Of course, he followed this up with an exaggerated description of Maale Adumim as "the end to the 2 state solution" because it splits the West Bank. While I don't necessarily understand enough about the area to say whether the action of developing the land is right or wrong, even if it's wrong, I do know Gaza is already split from the West Bank and that's not what is stopping peace in the area. The next checkpoint we passed through, instead of passed by. At this checkpoint, they weren't stopping anybody at all. It seemed silly to have a checkpoint where you were just waving all vehicles through, but I wasn't going to complain, especially after the guide told us that it used to take 3 hours sometime to get through in the past.
The scenery was generally nice, except it was filled with garbage. If people didn't litter, or somebody bothered to pick it up, I would have said that the road was a serene, beautiful drive.
Finally, we arrived in Bethlehem. Our first stop was the wall where the pope had just been earlier in the week. It is filled with graffiti in English and a few other European languages because the graffiti is there to speak to the tourists. Since so many people come to Bethlehem to see the holy sites, this is a good way to reach an international audience. I enjoyed the graffiti a lot because it was colorful, positive, and peaceful. However, I have to admit that I was both enlightened and saddened by the discussion we had at the graffiti. When discussing the wall, the guide said that it was put up to stop suicide bombings, but that it was working well. While they acknowledge that it works to save lives, Palestinians want it torn down anyway. On one point, I strongly agree with the guide- for there to be peace, people need to know and accept each other instead of building walls that separate. The current generation of Palestinian kids thinks "soldier" and "checkpoint" when they think of Israelis, because that's all they know. The current generation of Israeli kids thinks "rockets" and "violence" when they think of Palestinians, because that's all they know. When another tour member asked what the kids are being taught in school, and if it supports the ideas of hatred or love, the guide was very much the politican and joked that the teachers are on strike so much the kids don't learn anything in schools. This is the first part that saddens me. We always read on the news that kids are systematically being taught hatred in their public institutions, and he wasn't able to deny this. Then, when he added that he's a peace activist and only believes a one-state solution where the Arabs are in charge, I was saddened further. Again, I had always assumed that it was Israeli propaganda that the Palestinians wouldn't stop at anything less than 100% of the land, but he confirmed that it was true that's what they want. Does he think that they will treat their minority any better than pretty much every country in the history of the world? If not, why would any minority agree to persecution? The Sunnis and Shiites can't get along, and they're supposed to be from the same religion. Protestants left Europe for the "new world" to get away from the persecution that other versions of Christians perpetrated. Heck, even the Scots want to break from England, and I don't think that has anything to do with religion. I had a very difficult time with the discussion because I do believe that the Palestinians should be in control of their own land and destiny, but I guess I had always hoped that would be a peaceful future. While the opinion of this one individual tour guide cannot possibly represent the viewpoint of every single person in the area, the thought that somebody who was trying to paint a rosy picture couldn't was a bit scary. He was able to at least make us smile with jokes about the $#!+ cannon. Apparently, the guardpost at the top of the wall has a "cannon" that doesn't shoot regular bullets or cannon balls. It shoots out an artificial substance that marks the targets with a poopy smell that takes 4 days to get rid of. He offered us each the "opportunity" to experience it for ourselves, if we wanted, and said that there were lots of rocks around that we could throw at the guards. We next went to the "Banksy" graffiti wall. This is exactly what it sounds like- Banksy painted a picture of a little girl (not dressed appropriately per religious standards) searching a soldier. Across from the famous graffiti was a famous hotel. It was fancy. We didn't get a tour of it, but the bathrooms were very nice.
We made a stop at Solomon's Pools. These pools were built (supposedly by Solomon, but if not, by somebody around that time period) to supply Jerusalem and nearby cities with water. The three of them collect the water, and then it flowed through pipes to where it was needed. Currently, the site isn't in use, except as a tourist spot. But, you can't go in. Some people died in them, either by drowning when they were used as swimming pools or jumping/falling when they were dry, so they are currently fenced off.
Finally, finally, we got to the Church of the Holy Nativity- the main reason I was here. The church is located in a part of town that reminds me of old city Akko or Jerusalem in that everything is built of stone. The church itself is quite grand. It was originally built in the 300s by the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, the one who converted to Christianity. It was wrecked and rebuilt a couple of times and is currently being renovated because the roof was leaking again. The scaffolding took something away from the experience, but it was still pretty good. The church is built in the shape of a cross and there are a total of 3 different church sections. There is one central one controlled by the Greek Orthodox church, one on the side controlled by the Armenian church, and one on the other side controlled by the Catholic church. All of the sections are guilded and decorated and filled with ancient items. Underneath, you walk down to some caves. These are supposedly the caves where Jesus was born. There is a star inlaid on the exact spot where he exited the womb. The guide told us that there used to also be a manger here, but that in the 1200s, it was taken to Rome. The church also has a courtyard with a statue of St. Jerome. St. Jerome was charged with translating some of the books of the disciples. When he died, he was buried here. The guide also told us why the church had a statue of St. George. St. George was a Roman soldier who refused to arrest people just because they were Christian. Eventually he converted, slayed a dragon, and protected Christians from persecution. The guide explained that most middle-eastern Christian families have a picture of St. George somewhere on their homes so that he continues to protect them. And that was the tour. We had a few minutes to buy things in the shops outside the church, but they contained mostly the same kinds of tourist goods as the shops in Jerusalem and Nazareth that are targeted to Christian tourists. We unceremoniously dropped off the guide (he didn't even come around the bus to "shake hands" and collect tips), and drove back into Jerusalem.