Travel Diaries: A Christmas Pilgrimage to Bethlehem of Palestine (Part I of II)

Christmas Eve comes and goes, but once in ten lifetimes, you travel to Bethlehem.

3.10 Eastern European Time, December 24th, 2004.

I often wonder how we got there in the first place, a couple of guys with their girlfriends in the holy land.  I am so glad we went for it.

After a night in Tel Aviv, we catch a sherpa to Jerusalem.  There we meet Reuben, a Jewish American.  He is traveling here alone during his winter break, for pilgrimage.  As we make our way to the old city looking for shelter, we find a hostel right in the heart of old Jerusalem.  We are not quite sure why Joel seems hesitant.  We climb the narrow ancient stairway ascending to the second floor lobby.  “Do you have room,” we six ask.”  “Yes, replied the manager.”  Then he sees Reuben. “We have room for five,” he retools, staring through our new friend who doesn’t seem surprised.  “We don’t serve your kind here. Out! Out!”

As I look back on that moment where we watched Reuben flee down the stairs, I am ashamed that we stayed.  It was realistic that we kept our mouths shut.  I had only seen the aftermaths of these types of tensions and only on the news: decimated markets charred by the anger of this place.  Now we are seeing the makings of racial violence.   We are not sure what “kind” Reuben is.  The only difference we see is his skullcap, courageously pinned to his head. He is run off for it.  And because of our clothes, we find our shelter.

Our plans are soft.  We might enjoy Christmas Eve in Jerusalem; find a good street bargain perhaps.  But Bethlehem is only six miles away.  Somebody has the brilliant idea: let’s walk there. We cannot resist.

So, with map in hand and the travel warning to Palestine unheeded, we set off on the road to the city of David.  It takes only a few hours as city fades swiftly into the groves of the hilly countryside.  We walk past suburb and aside Jewish settlements, which inches their way in to Palestinian territory like us.  After a short walk down and up a small mountain, the barbed wire comes into view.

There they are, Israeli guards with their AK-47’s checking the trunks of each pilgrim who wants to get to the midnight mass.  I think, “well, good try folks.  Here’s where we get turned back.”  But it is not that way.  We get closer to the checkpoint, then right up to the fence. I try to make a connection with the guards.  They seem not to care about five wandering Christians.  So with great hesitation we simply walk past the checkpoint. No questions asked. No worries.  Not even eye contact. It is as if we are invisible!  And better that way.

Once past the military outpost, we scurry forth until we see the city.  There she is, Bethlehem of Palestine in all her Islamic splendor.  Before we reach the gates, we come upon a crowd of eagerly checker headed taxi folk.  They gather to collect pilgrims. And, I think to my Western media saturated self, “not a chance of getting in a car with these dudes.”  My companions feel more adventure than I.  And before I know it, we are crowded like sardines in the vehicle, flying off to the heart of the city.

When we pull up to Manger Square I am taken back by the Christmas crowd, on the one side, and the sublime melody calling forth from the lofty minaret of Omar Mosque, on the other.   In between the two religious buildings there are hundreds and hundreds of Muslim men.   Small shops line the Manger Square, and there is a stage in the center with a children’s choir singing “Away in a Manger.”  It begins to rain, and there are six hours until midnight.  We soon find out the worst news of all: you need to order your tickets a month in advance to have a chance of getting in.  Our five spirits were soaked. But the spark of adventure would fuel our hopes and grace us with the most unforgettable compassion we would yet to encounter.

Read Part II