A Weekend in Al-Quds!

As with most of our adventures, this past weekend trip to Jerusalem was certainly an experience! If anything, it acted as a preview of my return to America and a short glimpse into the difficulties of Palestinian travel.

Although Amman is only a 90-minute drive from Jerusalem, our journey took us four hours. We left Thursday after classes around 4pm and didn’t arrive to our hostel until 8:30pm. First, we had to take a taxi to the border 45 minutes away. Taking the bus would have been a cheaper option, but they only leave at inconvenient times and we wanted to have the maximum amount of time in the city as possible. It was definitely interesting when our taxi pulled off the road into a field and said, “Here you are!” There was no bridge or border station in sight! After Allison inquired “Where’s the bridge?!” the driver informed us that we had to transfer cabs because his couldn’t go on the road to the station. Interesting. We took the second cab 5 minutes down the road and arrived at the station. We paid the exit fee and received the exit paperwork and boarded a shuttle bus that would take us across the “bridge” to the station in the West Bank.

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There were several other Westerners in the station, but the entire process was so disorganized. They took our passports and said we would get them back on the bus, but never told us when the bus would leave or which bus we were supposed to get on. We simply followed the crowd and it worked out. Once across the border, we had to wait in a ridiculous number of never-ending lines. The entire waiting process probably took 90 minutes. Then, we had to find transportation from the station to the city, about 45 minutes away. We didn’t want to be swindled, so our guard was up. The only options seemed to be a private cab that would cost an arm and a leg or a shared shuttle bus for 35NIS.

After waiting 20 minutes for the bus to completely fill up, we were on our way to Jerusalem! The shuttle dropped us off in the middle of the city and we were left to find our way to the hostel. We flagged a taxi driver that claimed he knew where the hostel was, but after a strange drive around the city, he told us he actually didn’t know. I handed him my iPhone that had a map and the hostel highlighted on it. I suppose he was frustrated because he then threw my phone into the passenger seat in a huff. Once we arrived back where we had started, he told us we owed him 50NIS, or $10, for the cab ride. We had a brief argument and in the shuffle, I forgot to get my phone from the passenger seat as we were leaving. I realized as soon as he drove off and began running after him. I’m not sure if he realized or not, but he kept driving. I thought he may be nice enough to drive to the hostel (which was still on the map on my phone, which he would have seen as soon as turning the screen on), but I checked the front desk every day and he did not return it. Luckily I have insurance so I should be able to get a replacement once I come back home. At least I have an interesting story!

The hostel we stayed at was AWESOME. I had heard bad reviews from my friend Lauren, but I have no clue what she was talking about. Everyone was young, cool, and from all over the world! We shared a 10-person dorm room with 7 other people. There was a group of three study abroad students from America who were studying in Turkey. One of the guys was from Kentucky and went to WKU! I told him my dad went there and he was amazed at the connection. The world is so small!

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Our hostel room. Kentucky is sleeping on the top bunk!

The first full day in Jerusalem we went on a tour of the old city that was “free” from our hostel. They claim everything is free, but really it is “strongly suggested” that you tip. Oh well, it was a two hour tour and a lot of the information was incredibly interesting and I wouldn’t have known it otherwise. The Old City is made up of four quarters: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Armenian. Each is almost indistinguishable from the other as they all contain residences, small shops, and some schools. Most of the alleyways felt similar to those in Amman where shopkeepers peddle their goods. I purchased my souvenir from Jerusalem from one of these stands. With summer approaching, I realized I needed a good pair of Jesus sandals, and where is a better place to get authentic Jesus sandals than Jerusalem?!

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Haggling is an important part of Arab culture. I managed to haggle him from 260NIS to 80NIS. It is still extremely overpriced, but spending about $20 on a pair of shoes is pretty cheap in my mind. Plus, he needs the money more than I do. Regardless, he was impressed by my haggling and said, “Ahh, I see your father is business man, not tourist man, yes?” After we left the shops, we continued exploring. Also contained in the Old City is the Temple Mount, which is the broad term for the area containing all the important religious sites.

In Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is where Jesus is said to have ascended to heaven. It also contains the tomb of David. Like the rest of the Old City, the church is split into sections which different sects of Christianity control. My favorite part of this church was all of the holy men walking around swinging incense. It made it feel very “DaVinci Code.” We also saw the room in which the Last Supper was held. Unfortunately, you had to use your imagination quite as bit as it was simply a bare room.

In front of the back entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

In front of the back entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

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Allison and I in the room of the Last Supper

Jerusalem is important to Judaism because it is the site of the hill where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac to prove his faith. At the last second, God stopped him and granted him the land to give to his people. Around this hill, the Jews built a temple, which has since been destroyed, but the walls still exist, one of which is the famous Western Wall. It is a pilgrimage site where people come to pray. Some even write their prayers on paper and leave it in a crack in the wall.

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Western Wall with the Dome of the Rock on the left

The Al-Aqsa mosque is the third most holy site in Islam. It is where Mohammad is said to have ascended to heaven after his night journey from Mecca. The Dome of the Rock is also important because it houses the foundation stone that is important to both Islam and Christianity. In Islam, the stone is said to have ascended with Mohammad on his feet. In Christianity, it is the starting point upon which God built the world.

Visiting all of these places that are a source of such controversy was very strange. I expected to feel a sort of overwhelming history and power, but it felt the same as any other place. In fact, it felt a lot like Reykjavik, Iceland, due to the layout of the city and the sleek grey stone building facades. However, unlike Iceland, the raging nightlife comes to a halt on Friday evenings when the Shabbat begins. The day of rest in Judaism is sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. I couldn’t even find a place to exchange money, so I had to withdrawal from a bank!

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Orthodox Jewish family on their way to the temple. Notice the young boy’s hair!

Friday night, since none of the restaurants were open, we signed up for the hostel’s communal Shabbat dinner. About 40 of us worked together chopping onions and cutting spices to prepare the massive feast. Before we ate, we said the prayer and sang a few songs in Hebrew. It was great! During the dinner, we met two girls and a guy who were visiting from western Israel. They were all volunteering on a kibbutz, which is basically a small community that brings in volunteers who want to help strengthen their faith and community bonds. One girl was originally from Denmark, one from America, and the guy was from South Africa. Caroline and Allison decided to go to bed early, so I spent the night hanging out with my three new friends. Halfway through the night, our group merged with four guys from Denmark. If I had to list my favorite things about studying abroad and traveling in general, the #1 would have to be meeting so many unique people.

Emily, Jamie, and me

Emily, Jamie, and me

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The next morning, we had to wake up early to catch the bus to the border before it closed at noon due to the Sabbath. We asked the hostel and they said we could find a shuttle for 40NIS. After wandering around downtown, we found the shuttle they spoke of, but it told us we had to wait until it filled up before we could leave. This is common, but we waited 30 minutes being the only three people on a bus for 13, so we decided to leave and not miss the border crossing. We then had to pay 60NIS for a private cab. Somehow we are always being swindled! The crossing back into Jordan went much more smoothly and quickly, despite the painful US $50 exit fee from Israel.

One interesting commonality among people in the Middle East is their eagerness to insult others to foreigners. In Jerusalem, a shopkeeper told us, “You keep to yourself. Stay away from Arabs. You hear me?” However, this isn’t a one-way street. This morning on the way to class, we were in a minor car accident. CIEE basically guaranteed this would happen at some point. Driving in Amman is extremely dangerous, even just in taxis. Luckily it was only a slight fender bender in which we were rear-ended. After the ordeal, the taxi driver told us, “They were Saudis. I hate them. Saudis are the worst people on this planet.” Maybe it was his rage talking, but I find that most Jordanians hate Saudis. We will have to see how this observation holds up when I visit Dubai. I’ve heard that the Gulf countries are their own breed of people….

If you want to see more photos from my trip, you can see my Facebook album here! You don’t have to be my friend to see! Also, excuse (or enjoy!) the “Hot Men of the Promised Land” photos. It’s a bad habit of mine.

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