Palestine? Bethlehem!

Hello Dear Readers!

Picking up where I left off yesterday, we made our way from Ramallah straight to Bethlehem. Upon arriving, we stopped off for lunch, enjoying some Arabic food in the main square before heading to the Nativity Church, which is apparently the second holiest place for Christians (right behind the Church of the Holy Sepulchre).

The entrance is actually pretty neat.

This is the humble door, so called because it forces you to bow as you walk in:

 

The church has been undergoing extensive renovations for years, and will continue to do so until 2019.

An interesting fact, the Nativity Church is in fact inhabited by three separate churches. The Greek Orthodox Church has a home here, as does the Armenian Orthodox Church, and the Catholic Church. All three maintain the Church and all three have a separate place of worship within the confines of the building.

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Catholic section

And here’s a short video of the other two:

Now here’s what you’ve all been eagerly waiting for.

Since the birth of Christ was so long ago, the ground level has been steadily rising, so much so that in order to get to the spot, you have to descend an entire staircase. The entire outside of it is covered in paintings and art.

 

It takes you into a stifling room, crowded and hot, where on one side you can kneel and touch the place where Jesus was apparently born, and on the other view the place where the original manger lay.

Even though I’m not religious by any stretch of the imagination, this was a really excellent experience. It’s awe-inspiring, really, to see such a place in person.

 

After the church we again walked through the streets, culminating in a journey through one of the refugee camps built by the UN and a stroll by the separation wall, which is covered in all kinds of different graffiti/ artwork.

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For those of you who don’t know, Banksy, the famous artist, has come out to Bethlehem a number of times to paint and protest the separation wall and the Israeli state. He’s even opened his own hotel in Bethlehem, in which he’s hand-painted most of the walls and maintains a small museum. It’s a really neat place to visit, especially as he’s so well-known throughout the rest of the world.

Ok, now here is where things got a little squirrelly. As part of the tour, we were promised “a real experience in the life of a Palestinian having to cross the border and go through checkpoints.”

I mean that’s cool and all, I don’t mind checkpoints.

What I did mind, however, was learning that my way back, taking a public bus back to Jerusalem from the border, was to be accomplished alone, which was exactly opposite of the point of me signing up for a group tour.

The German family were going back to Tel Aviv, so they were picked up in a shuttle right outside the gate.

In contrast, I waited at the Banksy hotel for our tour guide to come back and escort me to the entrance of the checkpoint, at which point he clapped me on the shoulder, told me to look for a blue and white bus, and bid me adieu.

What in the actual f***.

To my eternal gratitude, another guy happened to be walking through the checkpoint, so he volunteered to show me through, which is excellent because how am I supposed to figure out a random border crossing in the middle of Israel?

It turned out the guy was also heading to Jerusalem, to Jaffa gate (my stop), and so he actually showed me the entire way back. Chatting, I learned that he was a Palestinian volunteering at a joint Israeli/Palestinian peace organization, working to create better relations between the two. He spoke excellent English and I ended up having a very pleasant time on the way back to Jerusalem.

Thank God. That could have gone so wrong.

-Carissa “Checkpointed” Rawson

Palestine? Yallah to Ramallah

Hello Dear Readers!

I know you’ve all been waiting with bated breath for this post. Who doesn’t want to visit Palestine? (Don’t answer that).

I signed myself up for a couple different tours during the week, one of which was a day trip to both Bethlehem and Ramallah. Now, there is a way to get to Bethlehem via bus or taxi from Jerusalem, but as a single female (I know I say that a lot), I didn’t feel especially safe just wandering the country alone. Thus, I joined up with Green Olive tours, which I would highly recommend.

My tour mates were a German family of five, whose youngest was still in a baby carrier. I have no idea what they were doing there, but they seemed pretty stoked to be on vacation.

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Them and our tour guide on the right (all in white)

The day started early, meeting at 08:30am to start the drive outside the city. Originally, we were supposed to head to Bethlehem first and then Ramallah, but our tour guide switched it up so we made our way to Ramallah first.

It’s an interesting place. I’m assuming most of you have heard buckets of things about it. For those of you who haven’t, it serves as the de facto capital of the Palestinian state. Because of this, I was envisioning some dystopian nightmare, where electricity was nonexistent and trash drifted freely through the city.

To my complete surprise, it wasn’t like that at all. It was actually pretty…well…nice. Most of it is new (since it is constantly being rebuilt), and once inside it functions much like a regular city. In fact, it reminded me greatly of Amman, minus the Palestinian flags flying everywhere.

Nationalism is strong here.

Our tour guide was obviously an Arab, so I spent most of the time chatting with him (half in Arabic, half in English) as we wandered the streets of the city. We walked through a busy street market and wended our way about town, eventually stopping for some 10am ice cream at an apparently famous shop.

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Yes, it was delicious.

We also saw Yasser Arafat’s grave, which is given a place of honor in the middle of Ramallah’s capital building.

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Pause for a moment here. As you have probably all figured out, much of what I know about the Middle East comes from an Arab perspective. And yes, I’ve studied a lot in college and done a lot of research, etc, but still- most things I know come tinted with the taste of Arab culture.

So, it was a shock to me when I learned that Yasser Arafat is considered a terrorist by many- and most especially by Israelis. This may sound obvious to some of you, but the only things I’d ever heard were praises singing of his desire for deconflicting the Israel-Palestine situation and his efforts to create a solution for the both of them. Upon learning this, I went online to look- and yes- there it was, his history as a supporter of violence and his youth spent battling Israel. Of course, this all culminated in his recognition of Israel as a state and his further efforts to create some peace…but it’s just another radical example of differing narratives. Israel/Palestine is a study in those.

Anyway after Ramallah we made our way to Bethlehem to go visit some Jesus-y goodness. It’s a long story, so I’ll post it separately tomorrow.
See you guys soon!

-Carissa “There Are Always Two Sides” Rawson

Jerusalem!

Hello Dear Readers!

I’m writing to you from the roomy excess of Economy+, where I shelled out an extra seventy bucks for the ability to recline my seat more than two inches. I know, I’m fancy.

So yesterday I told you all about how I got to Israel, and promised lots of stories on the things I did while there. First up is the city of Jerusalem.

I’m going to try to keep this as apolitical as possible. That seems like an impossible task, doesn’t it? Suffice to say that Jerusalem, and Israel as a whole, is a divisive country. Of course everyone already knows that, but it’s one thing to read about in the newspapers and another thing entirely to witness it firsthand.

Take for example, the choking air of intentionally lit forest fires, struck simply to cause terror and otherwise defile the city. Or the ominous clattering of armed guards gathered solemnly in a market, an overt presence that no one fails to notice. In short, it’s tense.

That aside, it’s a remarkable country, and a true joy to visit. This wasn’t actually my first time here. I made a short stop in Jerusalem awhile back, but didn’t get the chance to really explore like I did this time. Even better- you guys remember Harrison, of Ethiopia fame? Remember how I said he lived in the Middle East? Yeah, this meant that I had an awesome place to crash, which was excellent because hotels in Israel are *disgustingly* expensive. (Minimum $200/night! And no points redemptions!)

So here we go!

Jerusalem is packed with things to see and do. I spent most of my first few days simply wandering around, hitting up famous places like the Western Wall:

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And Machne Yehuda, the bustling market where fruit vendors vie for attention with tiny bars and hole-in-the-wall restaurants (with the best food).

As well as the Old City, whose narrow corridors are packed with shopkeepers and their wares, each shouting louder than the last in order to sell you “real Dead Sea mineral mud from Israel!”

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What a steal! No seriously, give me back my bag.

I even ventured out to the Israel Museum, which is enormous and whose archeology department is one of the ten best in the world. I spent an hour and a half here and only managed to get through this one section. It’s huge and very cool- definitely worth a visit.

Unfortunately I didn’t make it to the Al-Aqsa mosque (Temple Mount), as things were…in a bad way. Just a few days prior, there had been an attack at the mosque and several people were killed. Thus, it was closed. Next time?

And ok, there was a lot more, but I suck and didn’t see it all. (Church of the Holy Sepulchre? Underground tunnels?)

I did, however, have one of the best meals of my life. (This was actually from my first time here, but I’m only just now getting to write about it). There’s a restaurant called Machneyuda, owned by 3 famous chefs, where apparently there are tons of lines and it’s nigh impossible to get a reservation. Luckily, Harrison managed to snag one for us and we celebrated by eating approximately all the food. Seriously, we did a tasting menu, which was like…seven courses long.

I even ate things I’ve sworn off of for forever, like tuna (raw!), scallops (what was I thinking?), halibut (no but seriously I swear I don’t eat fish), and bone marrow, which was surprisingly my least favorite thing on the menu. I don’t recommend it.

It also came with five different desserts, which I somehow managed to eat all of because everyone knows that your dessert stomach is separate from your food stomach.

Unfortunately for us, we had a lunch reservation rather than dinner, which meant that after eating the whole day was shot. I think I trundled back to my room and watched crappy Hebrew tv for the next five hours. I’m a superstar tourist, you guys.

Anyway, Jerusalem is really cool. It’s this weird mix- in which ultra-Orthodox Jews mingle past girls in daisy dukes clutching frappuccinos. (Ok that was me). There’s new next to old, and an ever-expanding city that promises a respite from the harshness of the desert via A/C and deeply tinted windows. (And, like, nice designs too, I guess).

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I should take more photos.

Up next- a day tour to Bethlehem and Ramallah, because of course I did.

-Carissa “Pescatarian” Rawson

Israel?

Hello Dear Readers!

I’m writing to you from the sunny beach of Tel Aviv, where I’m resisting a second mimosa because it’s ten am and maybe I should have some self control?

Nah.

Anyway, I’ve been in Israel for the last week, doing tons of cool stuff which obviously I’m going to write about.

First, the fun stuff. How did I get here? *bragbragbrag* Flights to Israel are stupid expensive, so I wasn’t looking forward to dropping over a thousand bucks to haul myself across the world. It took a few weeks of searching, and just as I was resigned to hopping a complicated points-based itinerary through Europe, I happened to see- somehow- a single day of flights out of Boston that were priced at $600 rather than the normal $1200. Even better, the flights were on Delta.

As I’ve mentioned multiple times, the American Express Business Platinum card will give you a rebate back on points redeemed for your chosen airline. For new sign-ups, the bonus is 35%, but I’m grandfathered in (until October) at a 50% rebate. Delta happens to be my preferred airline, so I redeemed 30,000 American Express membership reward points for my flight. This effectively meant I paid $300 ‘worth’ of points for my round trip itinerary to Tel Aviv and back. Yay!

Of course, I still had to get to Boston, but luckily flights out there from San Francisco are very cheap. (And I used points, obviously).

This is the second time I’ve given myself the benefit of the doubt and scheduled a day long layover somewhere in the hopes that I would go explore the city. It’s also the second time that I’ve been a total lazy-ass and sat in the lounge for the whole day while watching Netflix and generally mucking about online. I’m so impressed with myself.

Anyway, here I am, hanging out on the beach and roasting in the Middle Eastern summer sun. Maybe that’s why flights were so cheap?

Up next- exploring Jerusalem, being Biblical, and hiking at the Dead Sea.

See you guys soon!

-Carissa “I’m Literally Melting” Rawson