The Double Agent Tourist: A Day in Palestine

Adventure is anything and everything you make it and sometimes the adventures then become the greatest stories.  I recently traveled to Israel with some friends for a travel conference and while we were there we decided to spend a day going to Palestine (West Bank) and into Bethlehem. 

As we all know, yes, we could have booked a tour, but come on, we were in Jerusalem, so it was just a few miles down the road to go to Bethlehem, therefore that constitutes the greatest adventure.  Gather a few curious friends and hire a taxi driver to take us there.  So we did.  What we did not know would be the adventure it would become for us  to get there.

All three of us piled in the taxi with our driver, Mohammed.  A lovely gentleman, quite chatty and knew Jerusalem very well. On our ride to the West Bank, he pointed out many places around the Old City and along the route sharing his knowledge of Jerusalem and surrounding areas.  We very much enjoyed his stories and local information.  As we weaved through the narrow streets and around off beige colored buildings, homes, mosques, churches and past a few donkeys and carts then up a hill to a cobblestone street, then we just stopped. The taxi just stopped. 

Mohammed turned around and said, here you will wait for your transfer, my services stop here.  Another car will come and you will get in the car with the driver who will take you meet your guide in Palestine.  He is only your driver and he will only take you to the guide.  Please exit the vehicle now.

Amused and a bit baffled at this point, we exit the car and in a minutes time another car pulls up.  We converse for a moment then get in the car to go meet our guide.  (Yes, we were feeling a cross between uh-oh and oh-yeah and probably a tad bit of a mix of double agent tourist).  Ultimately, we were crafting a real adventure of sneaking into Palestine, or so it seemed.  

Our new driver, we will call him Yousef, because that is what I think was the words he muttered under his breath.  Yousef drove us through more winding streets and brisk turns on narrow roads and onward into Bethlehem.  I recall at one point when we finally seemed to emerge from the narrow streets and the first thing I see is not a stark countrysideKFC in Palestine or open space, but of seeing a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant and bus stop, with a massive line of people waiting in the streets and I quickly recall, well that just deflated my double agent tourist mojo in a foreign land uninfluenced by western culture.  

A few blocks later, Yousef stops the car and a tall, bold headed man wearing a black leather jacket opens the back door and hops in.  Remember, we are in a tiny car now  and I am in the middle of a very crowded back seat and we whisk off again through the streets of the towns in Palestine.  We are all wiggling in the crowed back seat, at this point I am trying to make a seatbelt out of what use to be the seatbelt then hopelessly giving up realizing we are so packed in this back seat that I am actually more secure.  Imagine the kind of squished in, three grown people, tiny car.

Our guide, tells us, 5 minutes and we will be there.  Elated, as I can become free of squished.  Yousef stops the car at the bottom of a massive set of steps that lead up to the church. Well, let me be a bit more clear, these steps are seemingly directly up, as in vertical up.  It was an iconic  “Welcome to Bethlehem, you have reached the Stairway to Heaven, please proceed”. 

Oh Bless! Deep breath, and we begin the climb.  Midway up and you’re panting, leaning forward, feeling the muscle burn, thinking, surely there was another drop off spot.  Where is my water!

Finally we rallied at the top, celebrating as if we had just climbed Everest then turn around to the utter amazement of tour buses.  Yes, many tour buses, you know the package tour, the ones where you ride in comfort versus squished in the back seat of a tiny unmarked car with a non-English speaking man who picked you up in an alley after being told to get out of a taxi.  Yes, the kind of tour buses that drop you off without having you wish death was an easier feet that climbing that stairway to heaven kind of experience and then having your jubilation from the mastery of those step instantly deflated.  You feel me right?

Thank you tour buses.  Our double agent tourist mojo was doused a bit.

But we are troopers, onward we go to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where Jesus was born.  Amid the hordes of tourist lines that yell hours of waiting, we then find in our tall, bald-headed guide, a crafty fellow.  He tells us stay here (of course we have heard this before already) and he walks away.

A few minutes later he returns and says, one person limp and you other two provide support.  Then he returns  to his buddy a few feet away and shake his buddies hand, you know the buddy that is wearing a policeman’s uniform, and then           our guide then leads us to the access of the exit door and tell us to enter here through the exit door to go see the star and location where Jesus was born.  But hurry, we must hurry and limp!

Yes, we are back in double agent tourist mode.  Limp my friend, limp as we enter through the exit and down into the corridors with the hordes of tourist where we engaged as salmon swimming in an upriver mindset and slide our way into the small hallway to take a few pictures then exit through the exit we had made an entrance.  Ah, mission accomplished.  We made it to the Holy City of Bethlehem and to the place Jesus was born.

Now it is time to return.  Return, that is to being dropped off in a dark alley to wait for our first driver, Mohammad to return to pick us up. 

The adventure continues……

Signing off tonight from the back of a taxi in Bethlehem, Palestine.

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