All quiet on the western front

Not a lot to report today. The hostel waived my “rent” for the night as I got back so late, which was nice of them. I was absolutely shattered so wasn’t realy up to much exploration. I had my usual falafel for brunch around going internet-loopy with the lovely free wireless.

Late evening, I met up with Noa and Yani for a quick beer then headed out for a couple more with some folk from the hostel. Not too many as I was still exhausted but enough to be sociable. On Zion Square, we saw a large van thumping out crappy dance music while a man who looked like the Ayatollah Khomeini bopped around. All very strange. We walked down to Stardust for the pints where my Betzefer t-shirt turned out to be a hit with the locals. And some American tourists. It seems the Israelis (and traveling middle-aged Americans) aren’t as easily shocked (or stuck up) as the Brits.

After washing my shawarma down with two pints of Gold Star, we legged it back to the hostel where I collapsed and caught up on the sleep I should have had two nights ago.

Kibbutzes, Armageddon, Betzefer and Salem

What a day this one was. And all due to the hospitality and friendliness of several Israelis I’d met in random circumstances. Despite barely sleeping the night before (I think maybe 30 mins), this would be a cracker of a day. As usual when you stay with a mate, I sat up till silly hours talking to Hen and playing with her cats until we nodded off. Then realised what time it was, tried to sort ourselves out mentally and then set off to get a bus to the town center.

On the way, I bought a plain black t-shirt as I didn’t want to trash my nice-ish shirt later on and – as mentioned – all my stuff was with Noa in Jerusalem. For 10 NIS it would do the job. We got to the central station and then onto another bus for Megiddo. Here’s an interesting fact – Megiddo is a bad translation if the Hebrew word for “Armageddon” and the valley around it is where the Final Battle is due to take place. Presumably once Bush finally flips and presses that big red button. So if you’re a journalist after some great shots, this could be your place. If you don’t mind sitting and waiting for a while. Hopefully quite a while.

We hitched the few k’s from the main road to the kibbutz entrance, and then again up into the kibbutz itself. OK, what is a kibbutz? For the long version go have a look at Wikipedia’s article. In short, it’s a collection of dwellings, sort of like a compound. The properties are built by the people who live there and most, if not all, of the facilities are co-funded and shared. They got a bad reputation when they kicked off for being very “communist”. Everything had to be shared, no major personal possessions allowed and so on. These days they seem a lot more laid back. People volunteer to travel to a country and help build and maintain the places. Hen made a lot of foreign friends this way.

We met a couple of Hen’s local friends who provided us with drinks and then walked over to her dad’s studio. He makes small sculptures for the tourist trade, all by hand and all pretty cool in an offbeat kind of way. Ice cream was provided by her parents’ fridge and we explored the surrounds. The kibbutz is well-furnished for kids with climbing frames, slides and a kick-ass new swimming pool all to play on.

Now, I didn’t mention this the other day, but when I was in the Tower museum I got talking to one of the security guards. I was wearing one of those handy-dandy limited edition MOSH tour t-shirts I had printed up before I left and he recognised the writing. We got talking about music and bands and I gave him one of my cards. Lo and behold a day or so later, I got an email detailing a few gigs he was thinking of going to including one in Haifa tonight. Megiddo’s more or less on the way (he was going to pick me up in Tel Aviv) so Hen gave him directions and my chariot arrived around 5:30pm, containing Giora, Lior and Ma’ayan. How’s that for friendly locals?

We got to Haifa early, picked up out tickets (60NIS, around £7) and I pretended I was 13 years younger so I could stand around on the street drinking beer from an off-license with a crowd averaging 21 years in age. 27 years in age if you included me. Now, drinking on the streets in Israel is not illegal, in fact it’s very common especially outside of concerts. Unlike the UK where venues always (try to) open on time or early so you’ll spend your money over the bar, Israeli ones advertise a time and then always fail to open anywhere near it.

So for the old guy staggering round with a cart and two dogs collecting empty bottles and cans, it was very much a *kerching* evening. We managed to convince him that the devil horns were a way of saying “hello” and he became a huge star as crowds of people wanted their photo taken with him! He wasn’t complaining. A bit of attention rather than just being “the scruffy guy with the cart” and a load of empties.

The doors finally opened around 90 minutes “late” and in we poured to watch Prey For Nothing, Betzefer (Hebrew for “cool”) and Salem. I picked up a Betzefer shirt with a very nice backprint that I can’t detail on this page. Suffice to say your mother wouldn’t like it. At least mine wouldn’t. Which is why it’s not going on here.

I had a great night. The music rocked, the company was great, the beer cheap and the women stunning (and far too young for me not to be morally outraged at myself). Despite the beers I also noticed something of a coincident. In Hebrew, “fire” looks like the word “LUX” in a vaguely unusual font. Lux is Latin for “light”. Weird, eh?

Prey For Nothing got a good reception for a support act and Betzefer really ruled for me. They ended with a superb cover of AC/DC‘s Thunderstruck which even Gio went mad to and he doesn’t like Betzefer. I ended up with a very large lump on my arm and another over my thumb. This is strange as anyone who’s festivalled with me in the past will know I normally get a swollen wrist. I’m sure Caz remembers my arm after Green Day at Leeds all those years ago… She spent half an hour trying to get me to go to the Red Cross as she was insistent I’d broken it.

I confess I fell asleep shortly after Salem started. Yes. Asleep. In a metal gig. I’d had less than an hour’s sleep! What I saw was good but I just couldn’t keep my eyes open. Afterwards, Gio managed to get the phone number of possibly the prettiest girl in the club. Way to go, Gio! I continued my sleep thing in the car on the way back to Jerusalem, so apologies to my travel buddies for being so antisocial. I’m just old, deal with it. I have to!

We pulled up at Jaffa Gate at around 3am and I dragged my luggage-less carcass to bed/roof and collapsed.

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Goin’ underground then being strung up

After a very late night, I opened my sludgy eye sockets and staggered downstairs. I overheard Alex, an American girl staying here, say she was off for a plodge through Hezekiah’s Tunnel at the City of David, part of the Jerusalem Walls National Park. We went with Fedi, one of the guys who works at the hostel.

Entry was 23 Shekels, which seemed a bit steep but I suppose archaeological works are expensive to maintain. It’s a very popular spot for tourists so expect queuing. A lot of it. The signs say that the walk takes 45 minutes and this includes waiting time. For our trip, that time was doubled.

The waterway was hewn out of the rock around 700BC and stretched for over half a kilometer. Apparently the section you can walk down is nearer 120m, though it seemed longer. It’s not very claustrophobic, though you will find the ceiling a little low at points, and your own torch is a necessity. The water doesn’t get much higher than “lower thigh” but it’s a good idea to make sure your footwear is up to it. And be prepared to get stuck in a line for ages as too many tourists stop to take pictures mid-tunnel. And kids will insist on screaming in the echoey chamber. And your eardrums will split.

Still, it was a cool thing to do even if it did slightly dent my thoughts of having kids, or becoming a teacher. Mind, I’d not have let them continue the way the schoolteacher behind us did. Sadly with the tunnel plodge taking so long we didn’t have much time to see the rest of the Park. Maybe next time.

Then the day got… weirder. Noa picked me up in the afternoon and dropped me off again on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. I located the right bus to get me onto the main road and wandered around the shops for a while before locating my hostel.

Tel Aviv to someone of my generation is another Israeli city hit by bombs and huge problems. The current day image is vastly different. It’s a bustling modern city with impressive tower blocks, a lovely beach and a buzzing night life. Fast food restaurants are everywhere, as are designer clothes shops and a gazillion souvenir shops.

At the hostel, I got talking to a gay Croatian guy who’d ended up Israel instead of Japan when he broke up with his boyfriend. There’s enough material there for a series of novels. He and an American were talking to each other in fluent Hebrew when I arrived, despite both also speaking English. While in Israel…

With their help, I located a KFC on the beachfront and continued with my tradition of a meal in each country. I opted for a 2-Twister meal at a stupid price approximating £5. Ouch. And I couldn’t finish it, so I left one of the Twisters in my rucksack for “later”. Back at the hostel, I had a shower, a snooze and woke up before my alarm went off at midnight.

Noa and two of her friends were outside to pick me up and take me to the Dungeon Club. This was like going back to a good old metal club – underground, cheap beer, expensive entry fee and everyone clad in black. Of course, the women looked far better than the men! In my opinion, anyway.

Tonight was a special performance by a guy from England, though he spoke perfect Hebrew. There was an annual festival taking place promoting all kinds of body modification thingies – tattoos, piercings and the like. Our mad chap was a bit of what the Indians would call a fakir – he did very painful looking things and made them seem easy. To whit: stapling balloons to his back and having people pop them by throwing darts at him; lying on a bed of nails with someone stood on his back; standing on broken glass, then lying on it with another buxom woman treading on him; poking a kebab skewer through his abdomen; and hanging himself from the ceiling via hooks poked through the flesh of his shoulderblades.


And I just found out he may well be on my flight on Wednesday. That’ll be interesting. I just hope he doesn’t go for an altitude body suspension record off one of the wings.

I got talking to quite a few people at the club, including another typically lovely Israeli girl called Hen who invited me to see her parents’ kibbutz. Well, how often do you get the chance to see a genuine Israeli kibbutz? As a result, I ended up crashing at Hen’s flat to make the journey easier in the morning. Unfortunately, all my stuff was in Noa’s car as we got split up and couldn’t find each other at the end of the night!

Note that this “stuff” included my spare Twister and I had the munchies. Nnooooooooo!

I never made it back to the hostel, making it quite expensive on a “per hour” basis.

Beer and citadels – a surprisingly good combination

Last night was another late one. A small group of us wandered up to Zion Square and surrounds for a bite to eat and a beer. And another beer with a free shot. And another of each. And more beer. Then some beer. Finally, we drank beer. We found an amazing bar with no seats, no toilet but beer at 8 Shekels for a large bottle. OK, technically it was just a shop but seeing as there are no laws regarding drinking on the street, or night suddenly became a lot cheaper.

We sat on the steps outside of the Tower of David Museum until shortly before sunrise. I keep forgetting that this means it’s hard for me to get to sleep as I’m still crashed out on the roof. So I snuck into my sleeping bag at around 5:30 and woke at 11:00 stewing in my own sweat. Niiiice.

I caught up with Dawud, one of the guys from the night before, and we walked back to the museum which this time was open. For 30 Shekels (20 for students) it’s a very interesting couple of hours, detailing the history of Jerusalem as a city from its tiny beginnings to the huge place it is now. It’s an interesting story and pretty much involves different groups of people kicking the previous “tenants” out every few hundred years and converting the existing religious buildings into different ones. Or burning them to the ground. Whatever took their fancy.

The building housing the museum is the Citadel of the Tower of David which has been restored incredibly well. Starting this weekend, the excavations area on the center is being used to host some kind of modern music concert thing with some bizarre instruments. These are permanently fixed into the surroundings and give a very unusual feel to the otherwise sedate setting.

The whole thing’s definitely worth a visit. Nicely laid out, plenty of information without an overload and a good variety of ways of presenting the details. Some of the forced perspective sculptures are very cool!

Looks like I’m off out for food and beers again later. Oh dear. Especially as one of my bank transfers seems to have been delayed for no readily apparent reason and I only have £2 in my current account. Argh.

Jesus woz (born) here

I’m sure most of you have heard of Bethlehem. Well, that’s where I went today. The trip is only a short one from Jerusalem – maybe 20 minutes and 3 1/2 Shekels – but the security once you get there is tantamount to entering a different country.

For those who don’t know, Bethlehem is part of the “West Bank” area which covers most of the major religiously significant areas bordering Jordan. It is currently under Israeli rule/control, though is classed as a separate state in some ways. Postage stamps, for instance, bought here are only valid here – “outside”, you must purchase Israeli ones.

The entire area – and it’s not much less than half of the landmass of Israel – is literally fenced and walled off. Checkpoints are stationed around it and people are required to show ID passes and paperwork to get through. As a foreigner, this amounts to flashing a passport. To a Palestinian (one from within the West Bank) it seems they have to apply for permission to be able to leave the area and travel.

The size of the wall when you see it is astounding. At a guess I’d say it’s around 12m tall and gun towers are visible. The inner surfaces are covered in graffiti. Within the walls, police patrol with loaded guns which is different from Jerusalem where they’re allowed to walk around with battered, unloaded rifles.

After I progressed through the cavernous and sparsely-populate checkpoint, I followed a series of caged walkways around and through the wall to an area heaving with taxis. Of course, they all started yelling that the distance to town was five kilometers or something, and in fairness I did know it was a little bit of a stroll. There are buses, but I’m not sure where they go from.

One of the taxi drivers admitted they were getting no trade right now, and I can believe it. I see the buses heading to Bethlehem every day and they’re rarely more than a third full – and not everyone goes to the end of the line. As such, they were desperate for business so I got a very fair price on the ride in, but had to rebuff the driver as he incessantly tried to convince me I wanted a guide to take me around all the sights. In fairness, some of the major ones are as far as 9 miles out of Bethlehem itself.

He dropped me off at the Church of the Nativity which is apparently built over the site of the original barn and manger. As with a lot of churches, it’s shared by a handful of different denominations. There are several entrances, but the main one is actually tiny. Over the years – mainly early on – it was reduced in size to prevent invaders riding in on horseback.

The main hall you walk into is obviously very old with stained pillars holding up the impressive wooden roof. At the front is a fairly ornate altar decorated with lamps and chandeliers, though it’s not as “showy” as some similar places I’ve seen. Off to the side is a doorway leading down to the Grotto.

This area was quite busy when I descended, with a tour group of (I think) Spaniards ooh-ing and aah-ing in a lot more respect than I confess to being able to muster. A baby had been placed in the location of the original manger. The poor sod was there for ages to the point where I thought that maybe he was a permanent prop until his mother picked him up and dropped him at the spot of Jesus’ birth a couple of meters away. Up till now, the entire tour group had been crawling on all fours and kissing the metal-marked spot. As the child was brought forward, the crowd started to sing (in Spanish… or maybe it was Italian, I don’t know) and the whole scene took on a very bizarre and macabre feel. I felt like I was watching The Omen part ten or something. It’s hard to explain but the whole thing really creeped me out so I walked up the stairs and left them to it.

Walking around the rest of the church it was obvious how many wings have been added as the time’s gone on. Different styles are visible, and some areas are simply just so much newer you couldn’t mistake them for part of the original building. There’s a lovely garden in a courtyard, a monastery, some doors added as a celebration of the Pope’s visit in 2000 and a really nice statue of St George slaying the dragon. I nipped back around to the Grotto now that the scary people had left and got some better pictures, including some of a fascinating leather (I think) “tapestry” covering the walls.

My stomach was making warning sounds, so I picked up some postcards and settled down for an overpriced shawarma (a falafel with chicken, basically). Those of you who normally get cards should have them soon, complete with Bethlehem postmark!

By now it was after 2pm and the Milk Grotto had reopened after it’s long lunch break. This is the site where Mary hid with Jesus before they fled over the border to Egypt. It’s named after some white stone in the floor, apparently created when some of Mary’s milk spilled on it. The section of floor is roped off, but presumably accessible should anyone need a handy miracle, for which the floor has been attributed over the years.

It’s a very small chapel to look around and after taking a few photos, I begin to walk back to Manger Square to locate a taxi. I didn’t even get that far when a guy walking the other direction asked if I needed on and walked me to his cousin’s cab. Another ten Shekels and I was back at the checkpoint. I had a brief argument with a small boy who was so adamant that I wanted his 5-Shekel chewing gum that he was trying to force it into my pockets as a “free gift” before asking me for money. Eventually, thankfully, he gave up and I got back through security and back onto my bus to Jerusalem.

Oh, last night I caught up with Noa again and was taken out for Yemenite food in a place next door to meat burger. Interesting… they do two types of pastry, bith slightly sweet. One looks like a fig roll, the other a pancake. They’re slightly sweet and eaten with a fresh tomato sauce dip and a side salad. Not bad and the price was good. But still not as fulfilling as a Meat Burger!