Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas, from Bethlehem

I was talking to my Mummers on Skype a few weeks ago, just chatting about holiday plans and the usual.  In her usual motherly brilliance, she suddenly suggested that I visit Bethlehem for Christmas.

Nice idea, Mummers!

Since Christmas fell on a Saturday, and Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath, and Israel is a Jewish State, and therefore buses wouldn't run on Saturday, we took an Arab bus most of the way to Bethlehem (see below for details).

In a strange way, it felt great to be in Bethlehem.  It's an Arab village now, and it feels that way.  Thing is, I've gotten used to feeling like the "different" one wherever I go.  In Israel, I'm constantly mistaken for Israeli.  And I haven't been in a place so similar to the United States since leaving Australia.  Going to Bethlehem was like leaving "civilization" again, going back to a place where I'm the oddball.  This is normal to me now.

the mosque opposite Manger Square
When we got to Manger Square, there was a group of Latin American pilgrims playing "Hallelujah, Alegría," absolutely rocking out on guitars, drums, trumpets, whatever.  People were dancing in a circle, waving their arms in the air, and generally having a grand time.  It was a lot of fun!

The Church of the Nativity is nice.  Not the largest or grandest church I've visited, but probably the most crowded--it was PACKED with pilgrims.  A long line stretched from the back of the church all the way to the Grotto of the Nativity at the front of the church.  Somehow, Davo and I managed to get to the front of the line by going to the opposite side of the church, then getting waved through to cross the apse.  The actual spot where Baby Jesus was supposedly born is just a silver star on the ground.  You can see it on Wikipedia, if you're interested.

sooo crowded!
I've had a few people say to me, "Wow, to be in Bethlehem on Christmas...  I'm sure that must have been very moving, very spiritual."  Well, it felt like a big festival.  Everyone around me seemed quite happy.  But the atmosphere wasn't particularly spiritual.

christmas tree at manger square
The most touching moment of the trip was in the actual Grotto of the Nativity.  There were three or four monks down there.  One said, "Merry Christmas" to each and every person entering the grotto.  The others gently took each person's shoulders and moved them along, single-file.  One smiled and said quietly to me, "I'm sorry, the line is very long," as he moved me along.  I thought it was very touching that these monks were trying their best to make the experience special for each individual visitor, all 90,000 of us.  I guess I'm more interested in these simple, kind human touches in the present moment, rather than obsessing over legends from 2,000 years ago.

Merry Christmas!

For future reference, here's how to get from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.  You'll need 13 schekels for the round-trip fare.  Don't forget your passport.

(1) Go to the Arab bus station across from Damascus Gate:
(2) Get on Route #21.  Hand the driver 6.5 schekels (he will make change if needed).
(3) You'll pass through a checkpoint on the way out, but don't worry--Israel doesn't care who leaves.  Our bus barely slowed down on the way out.
(4) Get off at the end of the line (don't worry, the driver will kick you off).  You are standing in the blue circle:
thanks, planetware, for the best bethlehem map i could find
(4) Walk across Hebron Street, then uphill toward the east on Paul VI Street.  From the bus stop to Manger Square, it's an easy walk, less than a mile up and then down a gentle hill.  There is only one turn--when the street forks, stay left.
(5) For the return trip, stand on the opposite side of Hebron Street to catch the bus.  Through the checkpoint on the way back into Jerusalem, you will need to get off the bus and wait in line to present your passport to the Israeli military.

I've heard that sometimes the military won't allow tourists to pass through the checkpoint that Rt. #21 uses.  It's possible that the always changing rules were changed for Christmas tourists, who knows.  I've also heard that there is a mini-bus, #124, that will take you to another checkpoint, from which you need to get a taxi the remainder of the way to Manger Square.  I get the sense that the transport and security situation is constantly changing.  Ask on the street before you leave, and if you don't make it to Bethlehem on your first try, chalk it up to an "experience" and try again later.

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