Stepping outside your comfort zone is a courageous task, but often the most rewarding. It’ll change your perspective & help you grow, just as it did for Traveller Counsellors’ MD, Fred van Eijk during a trip to Bethlehem:
The birthplace of Jesus. A place recognized by everyone, a place of devotion to many. Bethlehem; a well known city in the Palestinian West Bank, is divided from Israel by a high wall with Israeli cameras and armed soldiers on high-alert. Its role in religion makes it a visitor’s attraction, but also a popular place for Palestinian protest, as I discovered a few years ago.
Together with my son Alexander, who was 14 at the time, I started my journey to Palestine in a local bus from the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. On our travel wish list for that day we had put modern street art and the birth place of Jesus. Talking about contrasts.
It took us 45 minutes with bus 21 to arrive at our destination without any stops or checks. No one seems to care who comes into the West Bank. Leaving appeared to be more stressful as we found out later. We settle at a suitable price with a Palestinian taxi driver to help us get around for a couple of hours.
After a few minutes driving we find ourselves in front of the impressive street art murals by the world-renowned artist Banksy, which are very close to the separation wall. Suddenly things take a grim turn and the streets start to fill up with Palestinian youth throwing homemade grenades and Molotov cocktails at the wall and the guards. Children, similar age as my son, at war instead of playing street-football. Older boys stand at the sidelines cheering them on, while girls watch their local heroes from a distance.
Both sides of the wall let the violence slowly erupt, until it starts to get more frightening. Ali, our driver, takes us away from the wall when the Israeli army starts to shoot with teargas. They are soldiers, also children, who often just turned 18-year-old. For a moment, it seemed like bursts of teenage revolt and aggression, but it rapidly became threatening. This became our moment of realization how deep-rooted the problems in this region are for children. For me and my 14-year-old son it was an unforgettable experience. The birthplace of baby Jesus; now a place of enraged children. Banksy’s street art could not be more realistic.
The Church of Nativity is impressive and worth a visit. After we had seen this pilgrimage highlight, Ali takes us to the check point to leave the West Bank and return to Jerusalem. Once we finally got through the control checks we took bus 24 to the Jaffa Gate and headed straight to the modern shopping Centre with international boutiques, cafes and restaurants. A place where older children go on shopping sprees at brands like The Gap and Tommy Hilfiger. Credit cards in hand instead of weapons.
Travel does not always have to be relaxed. It is also about understanding differences, experiencing contrasts and seeking new perceptions of our world. A visit to Bethlehem will do all these things and is more than worth it for this reason. Do check the official travel advice and read recent, local news to stay up to date and be prepared for your journey.
Travel always opens my mind and makes me see things with my own eyes. The least I can do now is to close my eyes and pray for peace for the children and their families on both sides of the wall.
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