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05. May, 2010

Bethlehem – Last Stop Middle East

Bethlehem – Last Stop Middle East

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

As the old story goes, Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem on a donkey, and found no room at the inn. Jesus grew up in Nazareth, met his disciples in Galilee and breathed his last in Jerusalem. In modern-day Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph would have had to pass through a maximum-security checkpoint to get to Bethlehem, and Jesus, a Palestinian citizen, would have been refused passage to Jerusalem.

We were in Bethlehem for two reasons:

1.To visit the Church of the Nativity, ending our tour of religious sites at the beginning, and
2.Meet some descendants of Ninfa’s Bethlehem ancestry

The Manger Site

The Bandak Family

It was around 7pm when we parked on Manger Square. We were quickly informed by a local policeman that the Church of the Nativity closed at 7.30pm so we headed straight there, stooping low to enter through the Door of Humility. We found our guide, Faraj, at the entrance and quickly agreed a fee of 50% of his asking price for a quick tour. To the right of the Greek Orthodox church, there was a queue around 100 deep of pilgrims waiting to visit the site of the Nativity. Faraj guided us along the left-hand side, explaining the history of the site as we walked. At the altar, he exchanged a few whispers with the security guard and ushered us through the uncrowded entry and down to the manger (apparently this is legitimate queue-skipping reserved only for parties of two). The site itself is small and serene. It’s difficult to be sure of the precise accuracy of the location of all the religious sites in the Holy Land, but even to be in the vicinity of what once was is a special feeling.

Women?! Working at a market in the Middle East?!

Bethlehem's Proudest Knife-Owner

Faraj turned out to be good value for 50% of his asking price, when he joyously responded to the revelation of Ninfa’s Palestinian ancestry by calling another guide, Khaled Bandak, who turns out to be one of Ninfa’s relatives. Khaled came to meet us on Manger Square with his wife, Manal, son Fouad, and daughter Hind. Khaled proceeded to introduce us to his relatives, some of whom had lived previously in Honduras, and Ninfa talked to more relatives by phone, including Ofelia who knew a lot about Ninfa’s family. It was a wonderful feeling for Ninfa to be so far from home, but to receive a warm welcome of family. That night we stayed in the family hotel, the Grand Hotel Bandak in central Bethlehem.

During the course of the evening Khaled was able to give us first-hand accounts of what life is for a Palestinian in the West Bank, from restrictions on his movement despite the absence of a criminal record, being forbidden to drive his Palestinian registered car outside the West Bank therefore obliging him to use public transportation, and the unbelievable story of his adorable daughter Hind’s birth during the Israeli incursion during the second Intifada when tanks roamed the streets in Bethlehem and he and his family were under siege in their hotel, safe only for the presence of international reporters there. There is no doubt that the Palestinian people are oppressed, and denied basic human rights by Israel, and there is no justification of the measures employed by Israel – the measures are excessive. Blessed will be the peacemakers.

Souq Surprises

Friendly Locals, Friendly Tourist

But as Khaled stated, the Palestinians get on with the parts of their lives which are still free to them. Walking around Bethlehem the next morning, we enjoyed the sights and sounds of the busy souqs and streets of traders. Unique in our travels around the Middle East, we saw a great deal of women on both sides of the counter. Although still predominantly male, the balance was fairer than we had seen before. The people were very friendly and hospitable, with welcomes from all corners.

Two Leaders of the Palestinian National Authority ... flanked by Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas

My New Premises in Bethlehem

Later in the day, we decided to visit the Aida Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem. The camp is home to the displaced Palestinian refugees who fled their homes in 1948 during the first waves of forceful Israeli expansion in the region. Every move you make in the camp is under the scrutiny of the watch-towers along the Apartheid Wall, which itself towers over the camp. Along the Israeli side, the wall is an ugly but clean chain of concrete slabs. On the Palestinian side, it is covered in murals bearing political statements and imagery. It reminded me a little of Northern Ireland, although the murals we saw here did not show displays of support for any paramilitary organisations. My favourite graffiti was the slogan “Here is a wall at which to weep”, in reference to the Wailing Wall in nearby Jerusalem.

Palestinian Postal Service

Ninfa’s visit to Bethlehem, or the Middle East even, would not have been complete if we had not eaten some Marmahon. Marmahon is a dish often eaten in Honduras, but a cuisine brought there from the Middle East. It is a dish of very small, rolled balls of dough, cooked in a stew; real home-cooking and never found in restaurants. So we had to use our man on the ground, Omar from the hotel, to get the word on the street. He found a lady who would cook us a Marmahon with chicken and deliver it to the hotel for 1 pm. We had the traditional Bethlehem recipe of a whole grilled chicken, served with a steaming stew of marmahon, courgettes and chickpeas in tomato sauce. There was so much that we couldn’t eat it all, and took what was left to eat in our hotel that evening, our last in the Middle East, before leaving for Russia. Overall, the Middle East left a great taste in the mouth; we’ll be back for more as time did not permit us to visit Lebanon, and it would be great to revisit some new friends and family and favourite places in Syria and Jordan.

PS Read more about Hind’s birth in this article from the BBC.
PPS No map on this post as Bethlehem does not exist on Google Maps for some strange reason.

04. May, 2010

Akko and Haifa – feels like Florida!

Akko and Haifa – feels like Florida!

Since I was born I was over spoiled on my birthday, so on the 23rd of April I really hope all my wishes can come true. After all, it’s one 1/365 days in a year. In school age I would not go to school on that day and on adult age I would not go to work and instead go in a trip elsewhere. I love the sea and the ocean especially so I wanted to wake up on my birthday in the sea and spend the day later in a special place, close to my heart: Bethlehem.

Akko old port


I knew that Akko still retained its charm from being an old port of ancient history and the old town itself is still enclosed in its old walls, and that it has a predominant Arab population and feel to it. So I chose Akko to spend the eve of my birthday. We stayed in the old city, had fresh fish dinner in the old port with the waves splashing at our feet.

Haifa beach life

I woke up a year older and if not wiser, at least better traveled. We strolled through the souq, which once again felt like we were in the real Middle East of legends. For breakfast we queued for Said’s famous hummus which was well worth it and we climbed the city walls to have a look at the Bay of Akko and Haifa.

Yummy garlics!

Another reason I was interested in visiting Akko and Haifa was because of my interest in the growing Bahá’í faith (their philosophy mainly), and especially in their famous gardens located in both these cities. The Bahá’í Faith is a monotheistic religion founded in nineteenth-century Persia, with its main emphasis being the spiritual unity of all humankind and religions. Their doctrine is based on three principles: the unity of God, the unity of religion, and the unity of humankind. A child is not born into Bahá’í , he or she can make the choice after 15 years of age.

Gardens in Haifa from the top

Unfortunately we were too late to visit their shrine and main building but we were still allowed to wander freely through their gardens, provided we dressed very modestly. For me, the visit to these gardens was the highlight of Israel (excluding Palestine of course). I do not know much about the Baha’i preachings of peace among differences in religions, but certainly I felt peace in their gardens. The pictures definitely express themselves better than words, so all I can say is that they are majestically perfect. The variety, colors and geometrical designs of the flora are spectacular.

Gardens in Haifa from the bottom

While the gardens in Akko have a flat design and encircle the main building; the gardens in Haifa are in slopes, all the way from the top of the main hill in Haifa to the seaside. Needless to say, the view, especially looking down from the top to the sea, is astounding.

Akko gardens

Haifa is also a charming city, the third largest in Israel. The German Colony in the form of the Temple Society contributed to its development. They originated as a branch of Christianity who moved to the Holy Land to wait for the Messiah. They modernized Haifa, and you can still see the improvements they brought in the grand buildings and big streets. Logically we had to pay a visit to yet another “the city’s best” shawarma, this time “Hassan’s Shawarma”, which turned out to be a huge and delicious lamb shawarma that I could not finish, and to my delight with a side of pickled vegetables and olives a volonte. I have discovered in this trip that my unusual extreme craving for pickled vegetables comes from my Middle Eastern roots!

Gardens in Akko

Saving the best for last, it was time to head for Bethlehem. Israel has excellent freeways (up to 3 lanes each way) in their side of the territory, which do not really serve their purpose of a motorway as the max speed is 100 km/hour and are controlled by radars, which caught us at least once. In Ireland, the one lane – two way back roads also have a max speed of 100 km/hour. Most of the drive was very scenic as it borders the Mediterranean Coast.

Gardens in Haifa

Do not climb! Old Akko city walls against Napoleon

Being in this part of Israel felt to me like being back in Florida. Growing up I spent my summers in Florida, which is also very hot and humid, has bikini beaches with fashion dogs, has a freeway bordering the coast, many modern malls and fast food chains, beautiful gardens, and a big Jewish population whom you have to practice defensive driving against.

03. May, 2010

Dead Sea to Golan Heights

Dead Sea to Golan Heights

Tony floating in Dead Sea

Headed to the Dead Sea for a floating experience, we left Jerusalem. The Dead Sea is in Palestine, so driving down we got our first view of the apartheid wall the Israeli authorities have built. The size of it shocked me, as it is up to 8 meters high (Berlin wall was 4 meters high), and already 486 kilometers long; it has even split up Palestinian villages in two.

We descended more than 400 metres below sea level to Khalia Beach to take a dip in the famous Dead Sea. It was a cloudy and windy day, but the water was warm enough. Because of the wind, waves had formed so we were able to body surf in the Dead Sea. We rubbed mud on our bodies, which allegedly has many positive effects on wellbeing and we proceeded to float. The floating is instantaneous. While it’s a very fun activity, it can only be done for a while as the salt blinds your eyes and almost numbs your mouth if swallowed. I really enjoyed doing this part of the trip, as it is a unique experience.

Ninfa reading map in Dead Sea

Tony meeting other body surfers

After a rejuvenating bathe we drove up the West Bank towards the Golan Heights, via Jericho. We could not believe the enormous presence of Israeli forces in the West Bank. We saw some signs in certain parts of the road from the Israeli authorities stating Israelites cannot enter, but there were many cars with Israeli license plates. I could not understand this contradiction, as there are Israeli settlement camps neighboring these areas.

No comments

On our way to the Golan Heights, coming out of the supposed border between Palestine and Israel we were subjected to yet another intimidating checkpoint. We were questioned many times, had our luggage and car inspected; and once again our passports were confiscated for over 15 minutes. Nowhere in the world have I gone through such intimidating controls, as if we were criminals (not even in USA, Cuba, Russia, etc). Images of Guantanamo Bay went through my mind as we had to repeat the same answers to different officers. They are worried about foreigners coming in and seeing the truth and telling the whole world, but we have more to worry about every time they confiscate our passports; as there have been serious incidents of them forging passports, the latest one including an Irish passport.


Tony considering walking on water in Sea of Galilee

The scenic drive on the West Bank

When we entered Israel from Jordan I was well prepared for the border crossing, as I knew some form of harassment would be included in the welcome package. I saw how people with USA passports breezed through, no questions asked, luggage untouched. I will not go into further details of what we went through, but just to quote two examples: they scanned the toilet paper I had in my bag twice and looked at every single page of my diary.

Good Times!

Needless to say the excessive display of their power, portrayed by young men and women in military and civilian clothes all over the territory carrying machine guns almost as tall as they are and which they can barely manage is grotesque. For me it just shows their fear and insecurity, the same way when a person knows he has done wrong and is always on the defensive because of fear. I feel sorry for these young men and women whom from teenage age are obliged to serve for their territory and brainwashed. Their immature age and training makes them believe they have power by intimidating foreigners. I know that probably not all of them are like these, but that is my overall impression and therefore I express it as my personal opinion from my personal experience. Unfortunately at the moment the only way of accessing Palestine is through Israel, were it not for that, I would not be interested in visiting Israel.

Sea of Galilee

After being 3 weeks in the conservative Arab countries, getting into Israel was a shock! From all covered women to almost naked women, from barely seeing women in the streets to open displays of affection between men and women or men and men, what a shock! We were back in modern day. I have to add and stress that our highlight to our visit in Israel was that we did meet some great local people, who were very friendly, open and kind to us. Our thoughts about the people are completely separate and distinct than our opinions on the political regime. They are very open and friendly and one can even discuss freely with them, and not all of them are in agreement with what their leaders are doing.

Danger! Land Mines...

Once through the checkpoint, we drove through the shores of the Sea of Galilee and then up to the Golan Heights, former Syrian territory, and still the cause of bitter dispute. This part of the country is so green and beautiful, very different from the rest of the territory which is mainly dry. There were plots of burnt land with signs around it indicating “Danger, Land Mines”. We went through Zafat (Safed), the center of Kaballah religion, and continued our drive down the West coast of the Sea of Galilee, before heading to Akko, an old Mediterranean port.

27. Apr, 2010

Jerusalem – God’s Capital

Jerusalem – God’s Capital

We arrived in the Old City around 9pm and started looking for a room.

The Dome of The Rock on Temple Mount

We entered through Jaffa Gate to see one of the hotels on our list on fire with a fire brigade outside. Nobody hurt, but no rooms at this inn. Our regular arrival ritual in any city involves wheeling the bags along from hotel to hotel, asking prices and viewing rooms. It’s not as much fun in Jerusalem as the city is built on a hill and the majority of streets are stepped and straight for no longer than 10 metres – so no more wheeling, but carrying – real backpacker style! We ended up lost and tired. We asked a man on the street for directions, and he offered us a room in his place. We checked it out, agreed a price and slept!

The Western Wailing Wall

Nothing in Jerusalem is ever far from religion. The city is divided into separate quarters, generally along religious lines – the Christian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, the Armenian (Christian) Quarter, each with their own character. And that’s why many people come to Jerusalem – to visit the sites so fundamental to their religious belief. As we turned the corner beside the seventh Station of the Cross, we heard the hymns of the cross-bearing groups along the Via Dolorosa. The city is full of pilgrims.

The city is of religious significance to each of the three largest monotheistic faiths. According to the Old Testament, Jerusalem was founded by King David around 3,000 years ago. His son, Solomon was directed by God to build a temple on Mount Moriah, which was known as the First Temple.

Jerusalem at Night

This temple is said to have housed the Ark of the Covenant which contained the original stone tablets of the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses. The First Temple was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar of the Babylonians, around 600BC. Around 50 years later, with Jerusalem now under Persian control, the Jews were invited to return and rebuild their temple at the same location on Temple Mount. This Second Temple was subsequently renovated and expanded by King Herod, and stood until around 70 AD when the Romans destroyed it while quelling the Jewish Revolt. All that remains of that Second Temple today is the Western Wall, a massive retaining wall at the base of the temple. It is here that the Jews come to pray for the coming of the Messiah through the Golden Gate of Jerusalem, during whose presence on Earth the Third Temple will be built. The Wall is lined with the faithful praying and inserting their prayers in the stuffed cracks of the Wall.

The Dome of The Rock

Above the Wall on the Temple Mount itself is the Islamic shrine of the Dome of the Rock, with its beautiful mosaic exterior, landmark golden dome, and wide open spaces surrounding. Inside the Dome is the Rock upon which Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his only son Isaac at God’s behest. Just before the fatal stroke, God sent his Angel to stay Abraham’s hand, and bid him sacrifice a lamb in his place. During the time of Mohammed the Prophet, he received a visitation from the Angel Gabriel, who instructed Mohammed to visit the Al-Aqsa (Farthest) Mosque, which is also found on the Temple Mount. From here, Mohammed embarked upon his Mi’raj journey, and ascended to the Heavens and speaks with the prophets, and finally Allah, who instructs Mohammed that his followers must pray five times a day, before he returns to Earth and to Mecca in the same night. We were unable to visit the inside of the Dome, as it has been closed to non-Muslim visitors since Ariel Sharon’s infamous visit in September 2000 which was one of the main catalysts of the Second Intifada (Uprising) by Palestinians.

Garden of Gethsemane

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

From Temple Mount, you can see the three Jerusalem locations of enormous significance to Christianity – the Shrine of the Last Supper, the Gardens of Gethsemane, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Shrine of the Last Supper is located close to the Tomb of King David and is a non-denominational site.

The Holy Sepulchre

At the Last Supper, Jesus broke bread and drank wine with his disciples in the first Eucharist, and foretold his disciples of his betrayal by one of them. From there we walked to the foot of the Mount of Olives, to the Garden of Gethsemane where the still-standing olive trees are the only living witness to Jesus’ agony on the night before he died. Inside the shrine, there are mosaics donated from nations all over the world, including Ireland, whose mosaic depicts the dramatic point where Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss before the soldiers lead him away. From there we walk back uphill to the Old City and to the starting point of the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus was condemned, where Pontius Pilate washed his hands of his fate, and where the thorn-crowned Jesus took up his cross. We follow the climbing street to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is found on the supposed site of Golgotha, where the faithful ascend to pray at the crucifixion site at its pinnacle, and bend down to touch the original rock below the church’s floor. From there they descend to the rock where Jesus was laid to be embalmed and prepared for burial, and then on to the Sepulchre itself, the cave from which Jesus was resurrected and rose into Heaven.

Jerusalem is a beautifully preserved city whose future will long continue to be shaped by its religous past. If the religous significance of the sites are not enough to tell you that, the massive and heavily armed security presence around Temple Mount certainly is.

We also took time to visit the residential area of Mea Sharim, which is home to the Orthodox Jewish community. It was amazing to see the robed, bearded and curled, in their ultra-conservative community. We had to be discreet given the signs at each entrance to the district warning tourists away, but the glimpses we had were very interesting.

Keep a low profile in Mea Sharim

One of the locals in Mea Sharim

We also arranged a car rental in Jerusalem, which was tricky, as we want to drive through the West Bank. No Jewish car rental companies will ensure you for entry to the West Bank, as they are legally not permitted by Israeli law to enter the West Bank (unless serving members of the military, of course). We found two companies near Damascus Gate, and settled on one, and set off on our journey to 400 metres below sea level, to the Dead Sea and Jericho and the West Bank.

26. Apr, 2010

Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv

The Seafront in Tel Aviv

It was tempting to spend some more time in our luxurious surroundings in Aqaba, but we only had 6 days left before leaving the Middle East, and already that seemed like too short a time for what was left in Israel and Palestine. Originally, we had planned to meet my father in Jerusalem and spend the week with him, but the volcanic ash clouds put paid to that plan. As a result, we had been trying to re-plan our trip to visit Egypt first, and leave Israel and Palestine to a later date at the end of our Africa trip, but it was impossible to get in contact with our travel agent, as they were undoubtedly swamped with the workload of the stranded passengers. So, with mixed feelings, we packed up and headed for the border with Israel.

Grills and Fly- Bys

We had three main reasons for visiting Israel and Palestine:

1. Meet some of Ninfa’s family in her grandfather’s home town of Bethlehem

2. Follow in the footsteps of Jesus in the Holy Land

3. View with our own eyes the political situation that dominates so much of our world news


Our first step was to make it across the border. We had heard mixed reports about how long this would take given the fact that we had just visited Syria, and that Ninfa’s surname is Bendeck, which is of Arab origin. And to no surprise, Ninfa was questioned on her name and had her bags meticulously searched over half an hour, and I was searched thoroughly, interviewed twice and made wait 20 minutes to receive my entry visa. Anyway, all’s well that ends well, and thanks to the delay, we exited the Border Checkpoint at the same time as a few other travelers, Ofir and Emmanuel, Israeli and French, and both living in Tel Aviv. We got talking and shared a cab to the bus station in Eilat. We knew that travelling on Saturdays (Shabbat) in Israel was difficult if not impossible, and we had avoided that (it was Sunday). What we didn’t know is that the next day was Israeli Independence Day, and there were no buses running to Jerusalem until the following evening. With Orfy and Emmanuel, we managed to catch the last bus to Tel Aviv, and added a new and unplanned destination to our itinerary.

Locals Sitting in the Shade

Portside - Fresh Fish and Terrace Food

The journey was five hours by bus, eventful only for the jerky driving of the bus driver which prevented us sleeping, and the Italian theology student sitting behind us, who reminded us on more than one occasion that “Jesus Christ, he is the best!”, among some of his other interesting opinions on the religious faiths.

Emmanuel kindly offered to accommodate us in her apartment in a Bauhaus building (Tel Aviv is a UNESCO site due to its unrivalled abundance of Bauhaus architecture) on the happening Rothschild Boulevard. Rothschild Blvd is in the centre of Tel Aviv and is dissected lengthwise by a central pedestrian area lined with trees, benches and cafes. Accessories of choice are dogs fashionably groomed, bikes and take-away coffees. Sadly, we didn’t cut it struggling with our bags and the heat, but that didn’t stop us from at once appreciating the cool, hip and laid back vibe that pervades Tel Aviv. As we had arrived late, we had a drink and watched the party getting started for Independence Day. Of all the cool kids in town, our favourites were definitely the long-haired, bearded, happy group of Jews driving down the street in their van with huge speakers, stopping to get out and dance on the street and spread the happiness. I forget their name, but they’re a particularly carefree branch of the religion.

Napoleon shows the way in Old Jaffa

The next day, we set out on foot to discover Tel Aviv. The “White City” is not renowned for it’s sightseeing, but we had a few must-sees on our list courtesy of Ofir. We walked down to the waterfront where the place was just alive with families out for the day celebrating with barbecues. There wasn’t a green space to spare, and above us El-Al had their jets do several fly-bys. We walked along the waterfront to Jaffa, an old port city which has been absorbed by the sprawl of Tel Aviv. There we ate shaksuka, a traditional egg and tomato dish eaten for breakfast – very good! Jaffa also has a very cool port area, with all the traditional port activities you would expect, but with a backdrop of modern bistro terraces. The fish looked good, but we had already eaten, and it was time to make a move to Jerusalem. We stopped quickly for a chocolate pizza (yes!) before taking the evening bus to Jerusalem, home to the some of the most important religious sites to the three main monotheistic faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. But more on that in our next post.

Shaksuka Time

Overall, Tel Aviv is cool and happening, and we would have liked to spend a lot more time there. It’s like a European city in the Middle East, a nice mix of two cultures which we enjoy a lot. Bye bye party capital, hello holy capital!

No shortage of flags in Israel

PS All photos are uploaded in our Israel and Palestine gallery here.

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