A New Year – A(new)mman

New Year’s Eve in Tel-Aviv! First in my long list of places that rhyme with certain festivities. (including: Halloween in Aberdeen, my birthday in Holloway, um…)

The day began with Jessie and I returning to the the apartment block of the man who had picked us up the night before. For Jessie realised all too late that she had left two of her coats in his car boot.

Larkin in Ha-Yarkon
Larkin in Ha-Yarkon

We did our best not to look too suspicious as we prowled along a line of parked cars peering through the windows. Naturally it caught the attention of a man who wanted to know what the devil we were up to.

Jessie explained the situation, he became sympathetic and gave us his contact details, then translated a note Jessie had written into hebrew to stick on the reception notice board. Nothing came of it but was worth a try.

After spending the morning marvelling at the greeness and sheer loveliness of Ha-Yarkon park, we took a bus into town.

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typical past time of fren-..eh.. Israeli men

And had a good old gander around the happening districts of Rotschild Boulevard and Allenby street. Both either tree-lined or filled with trendy cafes and book shops. We followed our whims down through Carmel market (not camel), before ending up at the mediterranean just in time for sunset.

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 14.16.53In a fit of excitement I even ate some fish and chips.

We all regrouped back at the flat before going out again for New Year’s Eve festivities. We bundled into separate taxis, but unfortunately there was a misunderstanding of the meeting point. So when we finally found each other it was just in time to celebrate British New Year (2 hours later).
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The atmosphere was a strange mixture of orthodox jews raving on van roofs, their curls flying all over the place, and pop-up jazz trios rocking away under the trees.

After eventually making it back, we managed a few hours sleep before leaving bright and early to get to the Sheikh Hussein border crossing.

There are three border crossings between Jordan and Israel. One down south, one in the middle near Jerusalem (King Hussein Bridge) and the Sheikh Hussein bridge in the North.

Although the King Hussein Bridge was much closer, they have no facilities for granting visas so that meant we would have to travel back up north, passed Nazareth to Sheikh Hussein.

Several bus changes after leaving Tel-Aviv we arrived in Beit Shean 7km from the northern border. Now we had to wait for the infamously rare no.16 bus to the border. Luckily we arrived in time for the 12.45. The next one would’ve been at 6.30pm. The only other option is paying through the roof for a taxi.

At the border we were fortunate enough to meet Sarah, an American travelling in the footsteps of the traveller Richard Halliburton. (Her blog: http://uneventenor.com/)

One of my favourite features of this entire trip from Jordan to Egypt, to Palestine, Israel and back has been the exit fees. So I was more than delighted to cough up my 100 shekels (around £17) for the privilege of leaving Israel.

The Israeli officer who handled my passport was nice and asked if i want an Israeli stamp in or out of my passport (but this was not the case for Sarah). I turned to leave and said, “toda” (thanks in hebrew).

“Where did you learn hebrew James?” She snapped back, seemingly suspicious.

“I know two words, shalom (hi/bye) and toda,” I replied. She laughed and waved me through.

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The next stage involves boarding a bus (five shekles) for a short three minute ride over the bridge and voila you are in Jordan. Where all that remains is to purchase your visa, a mere 40JD (£37) and then work out how to get to Amman.

Jessie and I shared a taxi with Sarah back to Amman for less than the price of a Jordanian visa. Huge expanses of agricultural fields full of Syrian workers stretch out on either side of the road before it climbs up over the mountainous region that leads, through Salt, all the way back to Amman.

My conversation with the driver can be summarised thus:

“Ever been to Iraq?’
“Want to go? I go there every month, only last time I had to pay ISIS 300 dollars and hide a shia guy in the boot.”
“Oh right, that’s um, nice.”

It had been an exaggerated loop of a journey but we were back in Amman. Standing by a familiar traffic jam in the freezing cold, chewing on a falafel sandwhich whilst contemplating a fiery red sunset. Despite my bag still being locked up at Qasid and having nowhere to live, I was excited for the new year.


How to Lose Amman

The buses from Nazareth to Tel-Aviv are sly dogs. Depending on who you ask there are either: no buses, only one bus a day (that had already left at 5.30am) or a complete denial of the existence of Tel-Aviv and buses in general.

We inquired at a bus ticket office, even asked a bus driver himself. And were met with universal ignorance. That was until we came across a tourist information office. Within less than a minute we had a map, a location and a bus number. The bus stop was 200 metres away and departs every 30 minutes.

So we got to Tel-Aviv two and a half hours later in the early afternoon of 30th December. We had sorted out staying at an air bnb flat in a Tel-Aviv suburb next to a large park. The flat listing on the website was notable for the absence of any phone number or house number. All we had was a street name and had told Duncan (who had left earlier in the morning) to put a towel over the gate.

At first we attempted to acquire a taxi but were put off by the fee. Couldn’t find any place to get a map so with nothing better to do we hopped on a bus to take us to the park. My hebrew wasn’t up to scratch so a kind lady tried to help us, but we ended up more confused as she proceeded to deny the existence of this park (Ha-Yarkon park – the biggest in Tel-Aviv).

So we trundled along to the terminus where we met a man with an iPhone who kindly showed us that we were about 3/4km from our destination at the wrong end of the park.

But being the adventurous types, Jessie and i decided to walk. Along the main road and then we cut across the park and got lost again.

Jessie had a brainwave and emptied her entire bag in the middle of a car park to look for a map which turned out not to be there.

After nearly three hours we ambushed a man and his son who were just coming out of their apartment block and asked for help. He told us we were still quite far away so offered to drive us.

“So do you have a house number or telephone or anything?” he asked.
“No just the street name.”
“That’s an interesting way to travel,” he replied.

He dropped us off and, pointing to one end of the street said, “I suggest you start down there, good luck.”

We paced the length of the street several times to no avail. No hanging towels or nothing.

“it’s all getting a bit Love Actually, we might have to start carol singing,” I mentioned in a moment of post-festive gaiety.

In desperation Jessie went into a small grocery store to find someone with a smartphone. The owner instantly downed his tools and ran out of the now unattended store gesturing for me to run after him.  He told me he had met two British guys staying here the week before. He knew the address and it was close by.

I went and rang the doorbell but no reply. Motivated by weary fed-up-ness, Jessie crept up the side stairs and knocked on the top-floor door hesitantly.

The door opened and it was Duncan.

Amman among the Nazarene

A short drive from Tiberias, Nazareth is renowned all over the world for being a city in the north of Israel. It is thought to have been the childhood town of Jesus, Him of Christianity fame. And is considered to be the arab capital of Israel, and claimed by some to be the founding place of Kenafa (sweet and cheesy desert), but hotly refuted by others.

As a continuation of the months’ theme, I was totally out of my depth christianity-wise. Yes the Basillica of the Annunciation is big and beautiful, but I can’t bring myself to type it into wikipedia.

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 12.04.09But I do recall a whispy voice appearing in my ear whilst looking in incomprehension at a nativity scene, “….” it announced mysteriously. I took it to be a message from on high of an incoming pregnant pause in my life.

Still, it’s the number one place to see brown-robed monks waving their crucifixes for photo opportunities.

Not to mention  a bizarre billboard poster aimed at christian pilgrims slap bang in front of the church.

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 11.52.39We lodged at Abu Saeed Hostel, tucked in the narrow streets of the old town. The owner, Abu ’call me Ramzi’ Saeed, was (and still is) a small ex-policeman who can be found at all times sporting a long black cloak and watching cheap films on his computer.

We had arrived in the evening and so, after a short rest and copious thimble-full cups of complimentary coffee from Ramzi, we went off in search of nosh.

Shwarma restaurants, falafel stalls and shisha cafes line the streets. It’s like coming home, we thought as we tucked into a greasily delicious kebab sandwich and side-plate of disco-veg  (illogically fluorescent pickled vegetables that are common in Palestine and Jordan).

the only way to truly walk in Jesus' footsteps
the only way to truly walk in Jesus’ footsteps

Bellies full, I spied what looked like from the outside, a shebab (lads) and sebiyya (ladettes) -friendly cafe. So up the stairs we trod and opened the door. A heavy fog of shisha rushed out as if fleeing a crime scene of flavoursome proportions.

Once the smoke had cleared we could see the whites of the eyes. The curiously suspicious and confused eyes of arab man when confronted with three foreigners (one of whom is a comely blonde) in their prized establishment of coffee, smoke and football.

There was a pause, you could call it pregnant (…epiphany…). The saloon doors swung on their creaky hinges, the piano player stopped and tumble weed rolled past the way it does.

“Ahla wa sahla! Merhaba tfuddl,” said a great big grin from a waiter, greeting us like old friends. Seats were found and our bums were placed on them.

Then came a small commotion from round the corner, hushed and hurried discussion before a finger was pointed at a well-to-do looking man sitting by himself. A member of the first group went and whispered something in his ear. The well-to-do man looked up at us and surveyed the scene before walking over with a smile,

“Hello my friends, what is you wanting, hubbly bubbly?”

To which we replied in arabic.

“Ha! you speak arabic sorry! Welcome to Nazareth”

We shared a smirk with the guys beside us who had been part of the initial meeting to find an english speaker for the poor, lost foreigners. It made for a nice atmosphere and we passed the evening in a fog of our own, drinking warm and delicious qilfy (cinammon and walnut drink).

The following morning I went looking for a bakery. The only directions Ramzi had given me was the classic ‘follow your nose’. And he wasn’t wrong. Wedged inbetween two houses, a small entrance opens up into an aromatic drive-through bakery.

That is, the bakery is made up of a factory floor covered in flour and whatnot, as well as enormous conveyor belt oven. You give your order to the till, whether it’s pizza, or just bread and it comes rolling out piping hot from the oven within several minutes. Ideal.

nom nom nom
nom nom nom

Whilst out looking for things to do, Duncan pointed to a derelict church on top an opposite grassy hill. So there we went. We reached it after some fence hopping and barbed wire avoiding, which told us there might be a reason for it being derelict.

Birds of prey circling above us, green slopes, blue skies, red and yellow flowers and the odd preying mantis made for a perfect afternoon.

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That evening it was back to the same cafe, but this time with less of a reaction.

Just as we were getting into the swing of the shisha the door opens and in walks a huge group of spanish tourists. We shared looks of ‘here we go again’ and watched the confusion unravel once more. By that point we were on Facebook terms with mohammad the waiter, so he turned to us for help.

I did my fellow Boy Scouts proud by becoming the groups translator, conveying their order of drinks and shisha to Mohammad. But whilst talking in english to the groups’ apparent spokesman he suddenly cut me off, looked at me with a furrowed brow and said,

“I sorry but are you sure english is first language?”

“Totes bruv,” I replied and carried on, berating myself for not reading the Oxford English Dictionary as often as I should.

Such was our brief stay in Nazareth. Next stop was back to the Middle-East’s very own hipster factory, Tel-Aviv.

Tiberias Shore

Widely considered to have been a bad move, Boxing day fell on a friday last year (2014). I awoke with sleepy eyes and yawned away all that post-Christmas grogginess you get from too much bread, lettuce and stinky cheese. Then stumbled out into the morning light with the others to a surprising breakfast of bread, lettuce and cheese.

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Being accustomed to Jordanian Islamic fridays we assumed our best time to leave would be after midday prayers. It took a great leap of common sense to remember we were actually in a Jewish state with the looming deadline that is Shabaat.

With this new realisation that everything would shut down, buses, shops and whatnot by 4pm we hastily got our proverbial together, hugged and thanked our delightful hosts then legged it by taxi and bus to Jerusalem.

After some intermediary panicking due to taxi drivers who insisted that we had missed the last bus and so would have to pay them million dollar instead, we successfully boarded the second to last bus to Tiberias.

Arriving late in the evening, I realised I hadn’t noted down the name of the hostel. Another bold, Boxing day move of common sense. I felt a bit of a square.

Fortunately an Israeli policeman who had been on the bus with us came to the rescue with his smartphone and bag of sweets.

The following day we awoke to a mesmerising view over the Sea of Galilee and set about exploring.

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On a top 12 list of cool things to do in Tiberias, number 10 notes “one of the most beloved topics of conversation is the water level of the Sea of Galilee.”

With this handy tip in mind off we went promenading along the Galilee waterfront, ice creams in hand and eager for water-level based conversation.

We gave up very quickly and took instead to staring pensively at the water in a kind of ‘he fed that many with just five loaves and fish, really?’ way.

I noticed an old lady had snuck up beside me and was now leaning nonchalantly against the wall overlooking the lake. I assumed she was thinking along the same lines of us, “Jesus really walked on this ?”

But then she suddenly said:

“The water level’s not what it once was, it’s going down, such a shame,” my heart skipped a beat and my lungs did the hop-scotch.

“Tell me more,” I replied and then instantly regretted any original interest in topical water level discussions.

A short 20 minutes later after prying ourselves from her grasp we had a group huddle and agreed to collectively move on from this slip of judgement by going to climb a nearby mountain.
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Up we trudged over barbed wire fences and through rocky grass, up, up to the Tomb of Rachel and the ancient ruins that overlook the lake. Then proceeded to spend the afternoon pointing out to each other how breathtaking the view is.

Another thing that makes it on to the list of top 12 cool things to do here is a trip to the local hot springs, right on the shores of the Galilee. Wary of our past adherence to this list but tempted by the good value and promise of a boiling hot bath, we gave in.

It didn’t disappoint, the water level was as constant as the steaming temperature of the indoor and outdoor pools. I felt I was getting into the swing of it so I went and sweated in the sauna, but then I got cocky and stepped into the steam room. One breath was enough to tell me I could get the same effect by being water-boarded under a stream of boiling water.

Around three hours later, sufficiently prune-skinned and subdued we hopped on the bus to Nazareth.

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As the bus wound it’s way up over the hills that surround the Galilee I began to drift off into a sleepy haze.  I was just conscious enough to witness the driver of the car in front poke his head out the window and projectile vomit whilst simultaneously steering round a sharp bend. I remember thinking ‘respect’, before succumbing to my eyelids.

Away in Amman-ger (part 2): This Time it’s Biblical

Who said blog posts had to be on time. It snowed. I was cold and accidentally flooded my flat. I even ran out of coffee at one point. More on that another time.

It was Christmas Eve and the three of us were sat atop a dirty beast heading for Bethlehem. I wish there was something I could compare it to. Ok, the dirty beast was a bus, but I did see a donkey in a distant field (I think, possibly), and also had some of my wisest thoughts of the year whilst staring out the window.

Qalandia checkpoint, just outside Jerusalem is famous for being a pain. But surprisingly we passed through in 5-10 minutes (changing buses on the way). At the actual point of checking a plain-clothed Israeli soldier sauntered on board, adorned with ray bans and a sculpted beard. He swung his rifle absent-mindedly, occasionally poking a passing shoulder or face. As he wandered lazily up and down the aisle, iPhone in one hand and gesturing with the other for Palestinians to present their passes. It was a delight to behold.

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In Israel you can’t move for teenagers on their national service. They tend to congregate at bus stations. It becomes natural to see a bushy-blond with pink finger nails strutting down a Tel-Aviv street in green military clothes and a larger-than-life rifle slung over her shoulder. This is only to balance the even-more-larger-than-life handbag hanging off her other shoulder.

To anyone who has experienced life in a school Combined Cadet Force (CCF), that’s you. Now go off to war.

We arrived in Bethlehem to an ambush of bustling taxi drivers. After painstakingly playing them all of against each other we agreed a rate and headed off to nearby Beit Sahour (where the Angel is supposed to have appeared to the Shepherds).

One of the possible Shepherds’ Fields

A Palestinian family of Jehovahs Witnesses would be our host for the next few days. And so we collectively patted ourselves on the back for having found a christian family that doesn’t celebrate Christmas.

As the sun was setting we went a wandering down through the valley. Eventually coming across a small bunch of houses from which we were beckoned by a gaggle of children.

It turned out to be the dwelling of a family of shepherds and we had arrived just in time for the evening milking. Tea was offered and subsequently proffered. The girls were engulfed by a circle of their fans, wide-eyed in deep admiration. Whilst Duncan and I were herded into the barn to engage in serious man conversation on topics varying from ‘those bloody Israelis’ to ‘ha! What are sheep like! Who’d have ‘em’.

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…no sign of the baby jeeeeesus

At one point a lump of pungent cheese arrived on a plate. We proceeded to politely scratch and nibble at it.

There we were standing in a hilltop stable talking to shepherds about the goddam injustice of it all on Christmas Eve. It was almost too biblical, I had to take several deep breaths and go for a sit down outside. Although that could have been more to do with the awful smell of the sheep and cheese.

Not wanting to miss the celebrations amongst hundreds of pilgrims in Bethlehem, we parted company from this optimistic yet oppressed family on top of their idyllic valley, and set out for the Church of the Nativity.  (dropping the plate of cheese back at the our house first, they wouldn’t let us leave it, they just wouldn’t).

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Star Street

The night was eerily quiet, save for the odd screaming convey of police as we trudged our way up the aptly named ‘Star Street’ all the way up to Manger Square, Bethlehem.

Watching Christmas Eve midnight mass on a big screen outside the Church of the Nativity, beside an enormously fake tree and amongst crowds of Santa Claus hat-wearing Palestinians and foreigners, was, well, different. In retrospect I wish I had brushed up on my biblical latin and sense of religious sentimentality.

The square was full of reminders of the Palestinian struggle. With slogans like ‘all I want for Christmas is Justice’ and a tree packed full of grenades, dangling like apples. I certainly wished I was back sitting with the shepherds drinking tea, and picking at cheese, despite the smell.

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yay Christmas

At one point, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas turned up, was hurried inside to a front seat and promptly fell asleep. He then left towards the end in another flurry of shiny cars, muscly suits, dark glasses and secret ear pieces.

It was on passing by ‘Starbucks Bethelhem’ that it hit me: I don’t feel very festive and this ceremony is all a bit odd. It was a stark realisation of what Christmas actually means to me: barbecued turkey and bad jokes. Sorry Jesus and your Nazarene.

The previous few days had been freezing and so it was a pleasant surprise to wake up on Christmas day to bright sunshine and blue skies. Accompanied with a freshly made Palestinian-style breakfast. Consisting of fire-baked bread, salads, cheese, olive oil and zartar.

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there are mince pies somewhere here i know it…under the lettuce maybe

For want of Chicken Runs, Great Escapes, Queens speeches, crackers and board games, we spent a relaxing fake-summers day basking in the sun alternating between reading, stroking cats and skyping our families all over the globe.

All the while remaining blissfully unaware of the lack of mulled wine and mince pies or decoratively flammable cakes.

We had our Christmas meal of course. You guessed it! Pasta and tomato sauce with the festering sheep cheese for desert.

And wound up the day wrapped in swaddling cloth-…blankets playing cards and listening to Christmas songs as the night faded away.

Away in Amman-ger (part 1)

“Where do you plan on going in Israel?” asked the passport control lady at Tel Aviv airport.
“Um, Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nazar-”
“Ramallah, why?” she interrupted with an icy cold stare.
“‘It’s on the way to Bethlehem,” I said with doubt and the icy stare increased and lingered for a few seconds.
“Have a nice stay,” she said with all the emotion of lump of rock and returned our passports and entry permits.

poignant palestinian flag-polery
poignant palestinian flag-polery

Because of the late hour we had to spend a night at a hostel in Tel Aviv. But made a quick get away the next morning to rid ourselves of the try-hard trendiness of the place that hits you smack in the face with the full force of a waxed moustache and plastic-lens glasses.

We boarded the regular bus service for Jerusalem before catching a connecting bus to Ramallah. Ten miles north of Jerusalem it is the de-facto capital of the State of Palestine. Home to feminist movements (women-only cafe http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/.premium-1.569516), Quaker girls schools, various diplomatic missions, larger-than-life kebabs and a familiar sounding ‘Stars and Bucks’ cafe. Not to mention a handful of 24 hour bakeries that bang out fresh pizzas and pastries at all hours.

well, they were bloody huge in real life
well, they were bloody huge in the flesh

Whilst waiting for the bus in Jerusalem I caught the eye of a man carrying a dangerously full box of vegetables and a bulging plastic bag. Jessie and Duncan had gone on ahead to save seats and I was on bag stowing duty. This man (Mahmoud) and I helped each other with our things and then went and sat next to each other.

He ascertained with his first view questions that I was studying arabic and I that he was studying for a phD with mine. He proceeded to upturn his plastic bag on my lap which, it turned out, was full of a days photocopying at the library. Copies of historical works on the crusades in french, english and italian. So he was off home, he told me through a gleaming smile, to translate them all into arabic.

This from a man with more degrees than teeth. Then out of nowhere, the man in front turned round and blurted out in a south London accent: “I lived in Tooting for 14 years mate”, and went on to reel off the entirety of his former address including post code and phone number. I congratulated him on his memory and he resumed staring out of the window, reminiscing, I suppose, of all the good times at the lido.

This all seemed a bit strange, I thought, but then the great imposing West Bank Wall (in arabic it’s ‘the wall of the apartheid’, in hebrew it’s ‘the separation barrier’) came into view and thoughts of strangeness morphed into incredulity.

We stayed at Area D hostel, located in the centre and home to volunteers, backpackers, wandering diplomats and the odd French journalist who can be heard tapping away long into the night swearing under their breath.

IMG_1988A day of exploring Ramallah took us through the tinsel-lined streets, passed the enormous central christmas tree and the odd child dressed as santa ringing a bell at passers by. We ended up at the town museum where we met the director, he had just come back from a curator training course at the British Museum and was apologetic for the minimalist nature of the place. But took great pride in showing us the ‘history of light’ exhibition. From stick-on-fire, right the way up to electric bulb, it surely was an illuminating experience.

IMG_2035In the centre of the old town is the aptly named Old Town Cafe, frequented by hot-blooded shabab and veteran shabab alike for some serious coffee sipping and card playing. We got out our worn, and dog-eaten deck of cards and began shuffling for a game of hand (a game similar to rummy that is played all over Jordan and Palestine).

The owner took one look at our cards and refused to let us continue playing until we had accepted his offer of a fresh new pack. ‘I wouldn’t even let a dog play with those,’ he laughed disgustedly.

Whilst playing I noticed a young guy stood staring over my shoulder. I said hi, he said hi, I asked if he played cards, he played cards, i asked if he played well, he played very well, I asked if he wanted to join, he walked away. Such was our conversation.

Before leaving Ramallah we felt it necessary to pay a cursory visit to the tomb of Yasser Arafat. Guarded 24/7 it was the most immaculately clean place in Ramallah. Every detail about the tomb has its own symbolic meaning. Whether it is its distance from the gate (75m – Arafat died at age 75), or the size of the Mausoleum (11m by 11m – he died on November 11th).

That done, and with Christmas nearing it’s yearly outing we boarded the bus to Bethlehem.