Day Two of Seven: Life is circular so back to Bethlehem we go

On the second day

Life is circular so back to the beginning in Bethlehem we go.

On the second day we headed for Bethlehem. We wanted my sister-in-law to meet Palestinians while she wanted to meet up with the divine. For us, meeting Palestinians is a gift from the divine. I think we were all on the same page.

The first thing was to take my sister-in-law the short distance from where we were staying, across the Green Line and into East Jerusalem. Once there, we headed to the first of three Palestinian bus depots where we caught the Bethlehem 21 and off we went.

The Apartheid Wall
The Apartheid Wall

My wife sat next to my sister-in-law and took every opportunity to point out the sights to her. “There is the wall.” she said.

My sister-in-law was looking at her iPhone so my wife repeated, “There is the wall.”

My sister-in-law looked up and back down on her phone. It was going to be a long day!

After we had passed through the checkpoint by the military base, the bus weaved its way through the streets of Beit Jala and Bethlehem; finally pulling up along a curb with taxi drivers waiting to whisk tourists off to where ever they might want to go.

My sister-in-law participating in the frisk
My sister-in-law participating in the frisk

We asked an older gentleman in which direction we would walk to get to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. Being a taxi driver, he wanted to drive us. We insisted that we were happy to walk. He offered to drive us for 20 NIS (about $6CAN). We accepted. Then on the way to his car, he offered to give us the whole Bethlehem tour, all the holy sites etc. for 220 NIS. We accepted and off we went, not to Manger Square but to see some murals by Banksy. I’ve always been a fan of Banksy’s work, particularly when it comes to Palestine. My sister-in-law enjoyed it as well.

After showing us some Banksy murals, our taxi driver took us to Shepherd’s Field in Beit Sahur. We  wandered around inside the site looking at the various structures spread throughout the the place from which it is reported that shepherds saw the Star of the Nativity. While we toured the site, our driver remained at the entrance with several other drivers who had brought tourists to the site.

After Shepherd’s Field, we went on to visit Herodium where Herod the Great built a fortress. The fortress is reported to be more than 2000 years old. While my sister-in-law visited the site for the tidy sum of 30NIS (about $10), we remained in the parking lot of the site. The main reason for our not participating, aside from the fee, is that this site, as are so many historic sites in Palestine, has been claimed by the State of Israel.  Herodium sits on occupied land and under international law, the State of Israel has no right to it. It is being used by the state and the settlers to legitimize their presence in occupied Palestinian lands. We opted instead to enjoy the view of Palestine from the parking lot and socialize with our driver.

Once my sister-in-law reemerged from the site, we climbed back into the taxi and headed down the hill, through some winding roads and eventually into the village of our driver who had decided to take us to his home for tea.

Our driver Mohammed was somewhere between 60 and 70 with his youngest son being seven years. We met the son when he appeared around the corner with a little girl, about a year old or so. The little girl was the daughter of Mohammed’s eldest son. She was the first grandchild.

It wasn’t long before Mohammed’s wife appeared. She was a tall woman, much taller than Mohammed. She entered the room with a tray of tea, set it down on the coffee table in front of Mohammed before relieving her youngest son of her granddaughter. She sat in the armchair and participated in the conversation. We learned that when she wasn’t looking after her granddaughter, or her own children, she taught English. We also learned that the art pieces full of Arabic script, that  adorned the walls, were her handy work.

I was pleased that my sister-in-law was sitting in the home of a Palestinian family and participating in conversation that centred around their day-to-day life. We heard how their life and ambitions, were much like our own; much like any family’s dreams.

When we finished the tea we got back into the cab and headed for a local restaurant. We were assured it was the best in Bethlehem and we weren’t disappointed. My wife and her sister had felafel while Mohammed and I had shawarmas.  I was more than pleasantly surprised at the quality of the food and the very reasonable price.

Statue inside Milk Grotto cave
Statue inside Milk Grotto cave

We had Mohammed drive us to Manger Square where we decided we would walk around and visit the various buildings of interest. In particular, my sister-in-law wanted to visit the Church of the Nativity as well as the Milk Grotto. Before parting ways, we made plans to have Mohammed drive my sister-in-law and myself to Jericho, the Dead Sea, and sites in that area that were connected to the Christian faith.

We wandered down the street to the Milk Grotto. The Grotto is under the current chapel. It is a cave where Mary is reported to have spilled some milk while breastfeeding Jesus. This spillage resulted in the white stone dust of the cave. Legend has it, that ingesting some of this powder from the white stone will increase fertility. We gave it a go, my wife, myself and her sister. I am sad to report that none of us are with child yet.

S. Hieronymus with bullet hole between shoulder blades
S. Hieronymus (St. Jerome) with bullet hole between shoulder blades

From the Milk Grotto we returned to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. The church is under restoration.  It is believed that the church is built over the cave in which Jesus was born. What grabbed my interest about this site is that it was under siege by the Israeli military in 2002.

After Palestinian resistance fighters had fled to the church, Israel forces laid siege to the church, holding the 200 monks who lived there and other Palestinians captive. I would not have known any of this had another visitor not been pointing out to his companions the bullet hole that still remained visible in the back of the statue of St. Jerome!

From the Church of the Nativity we headed into the Bethlehem market. The streets of the Bethlehem market, as with every Palestinian market we visited, were wonderful. Full of life, full of colour and full of bartering. The bartering is eventually what my sister-in-law got caught up in while I got a haircut and shave and my wife waited at the fountain midway through the market. A few US dollars lighter; haircut and clean shaven; well-rested, we headed for the bus and back to Jerusalem.