Saturday, October 15, 2005

Jericho

Sometimes I think the most interesting part of traveling in Palestine isn’t the places I’m visiting, but the actual process of moving from point A to point B. M and I went to Jericho Thursday afternoon, and returned today. We went to Jericho, aside from the obvious historical and tourist reasons, because M is an avid birdwatcher and the Palestinian Wildlife Society has a small conservation area in Jericho. Of course, first we had to get there . . .

Our little misadventure started with a miscommunication. M was under the impression that A, her connection to the subculture of Palestinian birdwatching, was driving to either Birzeit or Ramallah to pick us up. Unfortunately, he thought that we would to finding our own transportation. So, around 3pm we realized the problem and started the process of traveling to Jericho, and on Yom Kippur to boot.

First, the service from Birzeit to Ramallah, then another service from Ramallah to Kalandia, then a third service from Kalandia to Jericho. To add to the fun, it is Ramadan, which means we had to get to Kalandia and catch a service early enough that we would arrive in Jericho before Iftar, or the breaking of the fast at sunset.

Luckily, we made it to Kalandia in good time, and there wasn’t a flying checkpoint (I was worried because of the Jewish holiday that things would be even more complicated than usual) and we caught a service to Jericho in just enough time to make the trip and arrive before sunset.

Our service was a dilapidated old station wagon, but this is not unusual in the West Bank, so we just hopped in and hoped for the best. Unfortunately (I will be using this word a lot in this entry, btw) there was an accident blocking the only road from Jerusalem to Jericho. There are in fact other routes, but they are closed to Palestinians and reserved for Israelis and settlers. Our driver decided that instead of sitting in a traffic jam for two hours, it would be a better idea to go off-road in this decrepit, low riding station wagon. Now, I have become accustomed to the Palestinian service driver’s idea of safety, but poor M is still adjusting . . . so we were bouncing along this little sandy path next to the Wall and M is trying to tell to the driver to slow down in Arabic . . . it was pretty funny.

Our first path turned out to be dead end, so we reversed down the path – imagine a sheer drop to the left, the Wall to the right, and cars in front of and behind us reversing simultaneously – and then drove around the wall (so much for security) onto the Israeli side and around the accident. This part didn’t really faze me, but when we got onto the Israeli road and started passing other cars on the windy, uphill road (he was passing them by going off the road onto the sandy curb next to another sheer drop-off) I got a little nervous. I think this is the first time in about 10 years that I said the Lord’s Prayer (or what I could remember of it).

After surviving the scary part of our trip, I was able to enjoy the scenery. For such a small country, Israel/ Occupied Territories has amazingly diverse terrain. Driving through the mountainous desert region was beautiful in a distant, moonscape kind of way. Unfortunately, this was disturbed by the Bedouin encampments along the road. These Bedouins used to live in the Negev, but their land was confiscated by the Israeli Army for “military security” and is now occupied by settlements. The Israelis moved the Bediouns to a small, waterless strip of land next to the highway and overlooking a dumping site. That said, the descent from the mountain region into the valley and the oasis of Jericho is stunning. The climate in Jericho is sub-tropical, so the first things that you see when approaching Jericho are the palm trees and green areas. This is also a sad story because most of the Palestinians who live in the region used to make their living by farming various fruit crops, including bananas and dates. Now, Jericho is surrounded by three large settlements which have taken away a lot of the Palestinian farmlands. There used to be 84 wells in the region for Palestinian use (it is an oasis, after all) but now the Palestinians only have access to 17 of them. This means that many of the people who used to make a decent living from farming their own land now have to work as hired labor in the settlements to make ends meet.

Apparently Jericho is a little over a kilometer away from the Jordan River, and also very close to the Dead Sea and the King Hussein (Allenby Bridge) crossing to Jordan. Unfortunately, Palestinians aren’t allowed to go down to the Jordan River because it is a military zone. All traffic entering and exiting Jericho has to go through an Israeli checkpoint, and they checked my ID both times. This was a little weird because on the way in, the only ID they checked was mine . . . guess that is what you get being the only woman in the service under 30 – or maybe it was because the soldier couldn’t decide if I was Palestinian or not . . . who knows?

As for the actual purpose of the trip – birdwatching – I won’t bore you with recounting the events aside to say that I got out of bed at 5 am, ate stale bread that was crawling with ants (after knocking the ants off, of course) and wasted 4 hours of my life that I will never get back. M admitted that it was an extremely boring day, even by birdwatching standards. I can officially say that I am not now, nor will I ever be a bird watcher. I’m all about recycling, avoiding pollution, and animal protection, but I think I will stick to my current hobbies of politics, beer drinking and writing. We also visited Hisham’s Palace and a monostary, but honestly it was so hot and my mind was so numb from the birdwatching that I didn’t take much in.

In conclusion, my advice to anyone who is invited to go birdwatching is – DON’T DO IT. If you must, make sure your first trip will be a short one.

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