The Wild, Wild West Bank

This blog entry about the events of Thursday, June 25, 2009 was originally posted on July 01, 2009.

DAY 12 (PART 1):  “What did he say?” I asked my new friend and traveling companion Sarit, who was fluent enough in Hebrew to understand what the bus driver was telling us.  She had asked him where we should be dropped off on the side of the road in order to hike the Wadi Qelt trek between Jerusalem and Jericho, through the untamed desert of the Palestinian West Bank.

“He said that he’ll drop us off at the [Jewish] settlement and that it’s a far walk and it’s unsafe and that we shouldn’t be heroes for doing it,” Sarit informed me.  “But he’ll take us.”

WHEN I ARRIVED IN ISRAEL twelve days prior, I had no intention of spending any real time the Palestinian West Bank (except for maybe Bethlehem); the American news made it sound like it was a volatile area, a territory of uncertain violence and tension in the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian land battle.  With that said, it had also become a little appealing to me and my adventurous self, and for Sarit as well.  When we met in Haifa, we both decided to do the trek we’d both heard of together, in hopes to get a rise out of our parents.  (I told her she needed to see the look on my mom’s face when I told her I was to go tornado chasing.)

“Wadi Qelt” became a familiar phrase to us in our individual travels, since we’d heard tales from other travelers who also ignored the media hype and warnings of the West Bank, and trekked out to see it themselves.  Some talked about the extreme heat and the lack of water; some told tales of being yelled at and escorted away from areas at gunpoint.  Intrigued, I asked for advice from multiple sources.

“What do you know about Wadi Qelt?” I asked Yael, the Holy City tour guide.

“You should try and find a group to go with,” she answered with a bit of concern.  “And you really shouldn’t go out there without a guide.”

Of course, I had learned that this might have been all part of Jewish fear, so I also asked about it to Alex, the Palestinian computer guy at my hotel.  “What do you know about getting to Wadi Qelt?”

“Wadi Qelt?,” he answered.  “I never heard of it.”

“It’s that trek from Jerusalem to Jericho, through the desert,” I informed him. 

“Who told you about that?”

“People have been telling me about it.  Tourists.”

“Israeli tourists?  Israeli tourists probably told you about it,” he said.  “I don’t know anything.”

“But it’s in the West Bank,” I said, figuring he had to have some sort of connection, which was probably ignorant on my part.  “Tourists told me about it.  Jewish American tourists.”

“Well, I don’t know anything about it.  I’m Palestinian,” Alex said.  “We don’t hike.”

Days before, I had asked Eric the American Dad about it, and he told me that I needn’t worry about Israelis and their politics, or Palestinians and their politics, but the nomadic Bedouin people of the desert who have no politics.  “Don’t do it alone,” he told me.  “Go with a group.  It’s a little unsafe, and you’re likely to be shot by Bedouins.”

SARIT WAS AWARE that she was traveling with a “danger seeker” (in her words) in our group of merely two people on the way to the unknown.  (I had told her that I’d voluntarily been shot in Colombia.)  Our Lonely Planet guide had mentioned Wadi Qelt — there was even a photo of it in the color insert — but we reckoned the author didn’t do the trek herself since there wasn’t much detail on how to actually get to its starting point.  The first bus at the central bus station that went in our direction wouldn’t take us, and we had to wait almost two hours for another — making us leave later than we anticipated, much to our chagrin since we hoped to be done by the time the sun got really scorching.

After a bagel and coffee break, we rode the bus to the side of the road on the boundaries of the West Bank, somewhere between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.  Sarit was relieved that it didn’t start completely in the middle of nowhere; there were signs designating “Mizpe Yericho” (a Jewish settlement within the West Bank), “St. George” (a secluded monastery that we’d read was at the halfway point of the Wadi Qelt trek between Jerusalem and Jericho), and “Wadi Qelt” itself.  It was just the two of us following the road into the majestic and arrid desert mountains — which reminded me of the Badlands a little — which got dustier the more we progressed. 

Fortunately, other people showed up:  two Basque girls who were seemingly doing the same trek together (although they were always 100 feet separated from each other, like they were fighting; picture above), and this older American(?) couple in an Avis rented car that we encountered at the end of the road at the bottom of the valley, next to some abandoned buildingI didn’t know their individual reasons, but the Basque girls quickly seized the opportunity to hitch a ride from the Americans back up to the main road, after seeing that going any farther from there would probably meet certain doom or dehydration. 

Abandoned by the only faces we saw in those parts, Sarit and I trekked on.

“What do you suppose is in there?” I asked my fellow trekker, pointing at some caves in the distance above us.  “Bedouins?”

“Or dead people.”

“I’m not going in there.”

“I’m not going in there,” she reiterated.

The trail of the wadi (a dried up river bed) was marked simply by the existence of green vegetation that streaked through the otherwise arrid desert.  We used the green plants not only for shade from the heating sun, but to lead us along Wadi Qelt — although sometimes it would lead us into dead ends behind cool-looking rock formations.  Along the way we encountered seemingly abandoned encampments that reminded me of post-apocalyptic images from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — whether or not they were inhabited we dared not find out for fear of trouble.  We spotted a couple of live animals on the way (but no people tending to them), and of course, dead things drying up in the intense desert sun.

“So this is what it was like wandering the desert for forty years,” Sarit said, nodding to her Jewish ancestors.  “The bad thing about the desert other than the [lack of] water is there’s no where to go to the bathroom,” Sarit said.  We only had five liters of bottled water between the two of us, and she was guzzling it down for fear of dehydration.  Needless to say, she was rushing off to the bathroom about every fifteen minutes, which I kept telling her was a sign of overhydration.  “Go ahead, I’ll catch up,” she said at every pee stop. 

“It’s okay, I’ve seen girls pee before.”  But I respected her wishes.

Perhaps her inclination to urinate came from a distance sound.  “Hear that?”

“Sounds like a waterfall.”

“Let’s check it out.”

We walked up from the valley and noticed something peculiar, something not mentioned in the guidebook at all:  an actual working aqueduct.  Upon further investigation, we found a sign, pointing two directions to the midway St. George’s monastery: via aqueduct and through the wadi. 

“Let’s follow the aqueduct,” I suggested.  “You’d think the Romans built the aqueduct, and the monastery was probably built by the Romans, so it’ll probably lead us right there.”  That was my wannabe archaeologist hypothesis anyway.

The aqueduct took the high ground of the Wadi Qelt canyon, hugging its winding northern cliffside.  It was a good idea since we always had a water source to cool us down, although it was tricky sometimes, trying to walk narrow bridges over the canyonSarit and I followed the ancient pipeline, cautious of the spiderwebs and thorny bushes along the way.  At one point it was impassable without having to walk in the water itself, so I took my socks off to wade.  My feet stepped through cool waters inhabited by a few fish and jumping frogs. 

We walked for hours without a trace of any other people around, hostile or otherwise.  The sun really heated up and we were consuming more water than anticipated — Sarit more than me with her constant pee breaks.  “I don’t want to die in an aqueduct,” she said.  Soon we came around a bend and I noticed a piece of cloth, colorful and devoid of dust, tucked in a nook of the rock.

“Someone’s been here.”

And then, we started hearing voices echo in the canyon from the distance.  I couldn’t tell which direction was from the source and which was from the echo. 

We continued on.  And soon the distance came into focus:  I saw two figures along the aqueduct pathway; if we were to follow the aqueduct all the way, there would be no avoiding them.

“There are people over there,” I said in an ominous whisper.  “Bedouins…”

“Oh my God, I’m really scared.”

“Should we go back?”

“No, but I’m really scared.”

We got closer to the two figures, who upon closer inspection were near a herd of goats.  The closer we came, the louder the barks of their herding dogs filled our ears.  We walked up an inclination to look below and see what would come next.

“They’re just kids,” I said, walking forward, still wary of any trouble.  The closer I got to the two teens, the more my eyes scanned their bodies for guns or other weapons.

“Salaam,” I said in Arabic to the Mexican-looking Bedouin in a blue t-shirt.  It was about the only thing I knew in Arabic, but fortunately Sarit had some more vocabulary up her sleeve.  She believed it was best not to talk in Hebrew.

“You speak English?” she asked the young man.  He looked confused.  “Uh, how far is it to Jericho?”  More blank stares and smiles of confusion.  “How farrr iss it… to Jerrricho?  Is it this way?”

The Bedouin tried to say something, but just smiled with his inability to communicate — yet the dogs kept on barking at us.

“How far is it to Saint George?” she asked. 

That triggered something.  “Sainnn Georrge…” he said.  He held out his ten fingers.

“Ten minutes?”

He nodded. “Sainnn Georrrrge.”  He pointed us in the direction, which followed the aqueduct anyway.

“Shukran,” Sarit thanked him.

We continued on.  “The Bedouins are so nice,” I said.

We noticed a Bedouin pathway that strayed away from the aqueduct, and we followed that since it appeared to be a shortcut rather than going around complete bends in the canyon.  Gasping with exhaustion at this point, I finally made it up another hill as the sun beat down on me. 

“A cross!” Sarit exclaimed.  “A cross!”  There was a cross on a hill in the distance.  “I never thought I’d be so happy to see a cross!  Jesus Christ is my savior!” she joked.

“Well it’s got to be that way.”

Sarit, full of optimism at this point that we might not actually die in the desert heat, was only disappointed when we arrived at the vantage point of the cross and saw that up ahead was not the monastery, but another cross in the distance on another hill.  Who knew how many crosses there were before the monastery?

We regrouped and analyzed our situation.  How far was it really to Jericho?  Was it more than the six kilometers we’d read about?  We’d been hiking for hours; we should have seen it already, or at least the monastery.  Where was it?  How much potable water do we have?  Just enough to make it back the way we came?  Or should we trek on?

“The aqueduct is moving closer to the wadi,” Sarit noticed.  “They must meet together at the monastery.”  That was her archaeological hypothesis anyway.

We trekked on, conscious of our diminishing water supply.  We took turns wearing the “Jerusalem” hat I was wearing that I’d bought in Tiberias.  (Knowing I’d wear it in Palestinian territory, I got it since it was the only hat I found that didn’t have a Star of David or gaudy logo of the Israeli Army on it.)  It was around noon, and the sun was reaching its hottest point of the day; I reckoned it was over a hundred degrees fahrenheit.

“Oh my God, there it is!” Sarit exclaimed.  Or was it a mirage?  We ran closer and to find out it wasn’t.  We had reached the monastery.  A stone path and stairway appeared and we walked down to get to the base of the monastery.  But we weren’t alone.  “Look.  People.”

They appeared to be tourists, who had driven from some other road from the West Bank side.  They disappeared up a hill, leaving us with a suspicious Bedouin man who approached us with his mule, wondering if he could help us.

“I am Ali Baba,” he said in English with a soft voice in an Arabic accent.  “This is Habibi,” he continued referring to his darling mule.  Seeing how exhausted we were, he sweet-talked Sarit into a mule ride up a hill, out of the canyon, where we could take an easier, faster road to Jericho since our low water supply wouldn’t last if we continued along the wadi from there. 

“Are you from Jericho?” Sarit asked him.

“No, I’m Bedouin.  I live in the desert.”

Ali Baba, if that was even his real name, struck up a conversation with us as we walked — as he and I walked while Sarit got the ride on the mule.  (It had almost mule-kicked me in the face when I got too close to its behind.)  “Where are you from?” he asked us.

“New York,” we answered.

“New York… in America,” Ali Baba said with recognition.  “I know America, land of Snickers.  I eat Snickers.  I like Snickers.”

Was this Bedouin in the middle of nowhere planted by the Mars candy corporation?

But he knew of other American brands.  “Coca-Cola Zero… McDonald’s… makes Americans fat.”

Was this Bedouin in the middle of nowhere planted by Morgan Spurlock, director of Super-Size Me?

Our hike up to the cross at the paved road was brief, and we gladly paid off the Bedouin fifty shekels for his services.  “No money, no honey,” he joked. 

THE PAVED ROAD TO JERICHO was easier, but we were still very far away.  Going up the first hill, I was really getting exhausted in the heat.  Sarit took another pee break while I just sat down on the ground in the only sliver of shade I could find.  I wondered how far it would take, until I heard something.

“I can hear… a Muslim call to prayer…”

We walked up the hill and discovered a new promised land in the distance: Jericho, with its green fertile land.  The closer we got, the more of its ancient urban sprawl we saw.  “We did it!” raved Sarit.  “I can’t believe it!  We made it!”

But perhaps she spoke too soon.  Its proximity was a mirage because we kept on walking and walking and we still hadn’t reached the town yet.  Fortunately, another Bedouin with a mule appeared and walked with us, free of charge.  “Are you from Jericho?” Sarit asked him.

“Yes,” he said softly.  “But I live in desert.”

“Have you been to Jerusalem?”

“No.  No good for me,” he said.  “Israel.”

“Oh, because you are Palestinian?  That’s unfortunate,” she said.  “Well maybe when there is a Palestinian state, you can go.”

“Yes.”

But the old Bedouin appeared to just be a man of the desert with no politics at all; in fact, he only went as far as the outer limits of town, and turned back towards the desert sands.

SARIT AND I CONTINUED TO WALK a long stretch of road littered with creepy abandoned buildings, like we were cowboys cautiously entering a ghost town.  We had reached the outskirts of Jericho, but it still seemed far away from any civilization.  No one was around — or was there?  There were plenty of shadows and hidden areas behind the cement blocks and panes of broken glass.

“I hear voices,” Sarit said ominously.

I analyzed the situation.  There was more than one voice.  “It’s another call to prayer coming from other there.”  There were multiple calls to prayer, coming from all directions with the echoing of loudspeakers bouncing off the mountains.  In an eerie way, we were soon surrounded by distant Arabic voices all around us, and yet we saw no one.

Soon a flag came into focus on the edge of the inhabited part of town:  the flag of Palestine.  I was happy to see it; it signified that we were somewhere as opposed to being nowhere.

“Maybe Mahmoud Abbas is in there,” Sarit said. 

“They’re watching us,” I said.  I dug out the rain cover for my pack.  “Here, cover your shoulders.”

Just on the other side of the building we encountered a busy road, with cars driving by and a Palestinian man in Western clothes walking, who spoke English.  A curious taxi also came to us, and the man helped us get a ride into the town center.

“We just walked here from Jerusalem,” Sarit told them.  “We’re hungry and we need water.”

“Take us to the best hummus in Jericho!” I instructed the cabbie.

JERICHO, ONE OF THE WEST BANK’S BIGGER CITIES — and one of the world’s oldest cities in existence at over 10,000 years — is a bustling Palestinian town I soon realized as we drove through the town center.  While it was not as modernized as the cities in Israeli territories, it still retained an Arabian charm found in most Arabian cities in other countries.  A little run down but full of life, its town center contained restaurants, markets, and shops, and all its people walking around going about their day.

The cabbie was a little confused to our directions and brought us to a juice stand on the side of the road.  Inside his little stall were fresh juice makers, a refrigerator, and a capuccino maker.  “We need water,” Sarit asked him.  He was a friendly man who sold us water, but not without an offer of his fresh lemonade. 

“That’s okay, I just need water,” Sarit told him.

“Here, just to try,” he said, handing me a little dixie cup.

“It’s pretty good,” I admitted.  So sweet when it hit my lips.  “I’ll have one of those.”  While waiting for him to pour it in a cup of ice, Sarit struck a conversation with him; she was still excited to have made it to Jericho on foot.

“We walked here from Jerusalem!” she told him before going into politics right off the bat.  “We are American,” she informed him, hiding the fact that she had an Israeli passport and citizenship.  “You like Obama?”

“Yes, I love Obama,” the lemonade vendor said, his hand to his heart.  “I just want peace.”

“I like Obama too.  Well I hope that one day you get your [Palestinian] state,” she assured him.  He smiled, and gave me my lemonade, which I drank in like ten seconds.

Hydrated and lemonadified, the cabbie drove us to the Essawi Restaurant in town, which he claimed had the best hummus in Jericho, conveniently next to the taxi stand with rides back to Jerusalem.  Famished, we ordered a whole set of different salads, hummus and babaghanosh.  It was delicious, but then again, anything was at that point.  Sarit shied away from the non-kosher chicken I also ordered, juicy and delicious with a marinade of lemon and something pickled.  “Whatever floats your boat,” she told me after coming back from yet another bathroom break.  (She displayed her empty bottles of water consumption proudly.)

So there we were, two strangers in the West Bank, having a decent meal with an attentive staff.  To our surprise, two familiar faces walked in the door: the two Basque women that we’d seen at the beginning of our day, who had turned away from the Wadi Qelt trek. 

“We drove here,” the older one told us.  She had a car after all, and was just showing her little sister the sites around Israel and the Palestinian territories; she was an ex-pat in the country, working for an NGO that aided Palestinian refugees; being in Jericho and the West Bank was pretty common for her. 

“Sit down, have lunch with us,” I invited them.

We talked about politics naturally, with Sarit still speaking about her Jewish support of the Palestinian state.  The Basque woman (I forgot her name) told tales of the battles between the two sides, she siding with the underdog Palestinians.  She had spent the past couple of months working to help the Palestinian plight in the Gaza Strip.  “[They only gave the fishermen a small six-mile strip of shore to fish on,]” she told us.  “And as soon as they reach the boundary, they [the Israeli navy] starts bombing, so they get the message.”

This story did not surprise me; Corrina, my dive instructor in the Red Sea, told a story that one time her Israeli-run dive shop had mistakenly anchored at what a new instructor thought was a dive site, when really it was near the border with Israel.  The dive shop on land got a call from the Israeli navy asking if that was their boat, and threatened to bomb it out of the water if they didn’t move out in ten minutes.  Unfortunately, the dive team was underwater and could not receive a cell phone call, and there a whole scramble of yelling and running and calling authorities, to prevent the divers from a marine assault by their own military.  Additionally, as an Aussie backpacker I’d met in Tel Aviv (who had been wrongfully roughed up by Israeli police, so he said), “They beat you down and then tell you what you did wrong after the fact.  That’s the Israeli way.”

Sarit added to the stories of the Palestinian plight in the Gaza Strip.  “[The area is destroyed and] they need to rebuild, but the Israeli army blocks all shipment of building materials into Gaza,” she told us. 

The Basque woman added, “[And the U.N. is no help; they only provide humanitarian aid, but don’t do anything to solve the root of the problem.]”

WE PARTED WAYS WITH THE BASQUE GIRLS and hitched a ride with a taxi driver who had a permit to drive us all the way to Jerusalem, but we opted for him to take us just to the boundary of the Palestinian West Bank and Israel.  He dropped us off at an Israeli Egged bus stop where we waited for a bus that never came.  Fortunately, a taxi picked us up.  Inside was a Palestinian driver hired as a private chauffeur for the old Jewish couple in the back seat.

“Thanks for picking us up.”

“Where are you from?” asked the friendly, old man in his Jackie Mason accent.

“New York… Brooklyn… Williamsburg,” I answered, to his surprise — I wasn’t a Haredi man with side curls.  He and his equally friendly wife were from Crown Heights, another deeply religious Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Sarit sat up front and struck up a conversation in Hebrew with the driver.  She told him how she was in support of a Palestinian state, but he told her that even if there was a Palestinian state, he would prefer to live in Israel; the Palestinian authority is so disorganized, there would be no jobs for him anyway.  He didn’t care about politics, he just wanted to make a living.  Meanwhile, the old Jewish man with the white beard, overheard their conversation and leaned over to my ear.

“Is she Jewish?”

“Yeah.”

“And you went to Jericho?” he was amazed, because he had been conditioned to avoid that area.  “And she wants to go to Ramallah?  You want to go to Ramallah?” he asked her, in his Jewish-American accent.  “But what is your last name?  They will see it in your documents!”

We told him that no one checked our passports at the checkpoints that day.  (Israeli checkpoints had relaxed temporarily.)  Sarit basked in her fearlessness.

SARIT HAD TO GO TO THE BATHROOM yet again, and rushed into the old couple’s hotel before they even got out of the taxi.  Not that it mattered because the old man bickered about the price with the driver for like ten minutes.

Eventually Sarit and I arrived back at the Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem.  “We did it!” she exclaimed.

“Hi five!” I held my hand out and she slapped it.  It was our triumphant victory to a long, sizzling day in the Wild, Wild West Bank — which was only sombered by the news that Michael Jackson died.  In any case, it was my first glimpse into Palestine, and their side of the story — but it wouldn’t be my last…


FUN FACT:

In attempts to be “extra daring” — Sarit called me a “danger seeker” after all — I had decided to trek, with an American Jew, through the Palestinian West Bank while wearing my “Suspicious Package” t-shirt (which you can buy here).  No one paid attention to it though as it was neither in Hebrew or Arabic letters.





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Comments for “The Wild, Wild West Bank”

  • Next up, less politics and more gefilte fish… it’s Shabbat dinner!  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-z_00M3Bro

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/01  at  06:35 PM


  • Great pictures. Could you stay in the monastery, if you so desired, or was it completely closed?

    Posted by No-L  on  07/01  at  07:23 PM


  • great build up on the walk on this one…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/01  at  07:57 PM


  • As a good friend of Sarit’s I am well aware of her need to stay hydrated no matter where in the world she is. This is a wonderful blog entry, made me feel as if I was there!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/01  at  08:29 PM


  • @Rachel: thanks! that what I strive to do… glad you enjoyed… read the whole blog, if you want; Sarit is a recurring character

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/01  at  08:40 PM


  • Great entry.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/01  at  09:10 PM


  • interesting article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/28/world/middleeast/28westbank.html

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/02  at  11:08 AM


  • very well written!  what an exciting adventure!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/02  at  06:12 PM


  • Another fantastic entry!!! Bless your mom’s heart, I bet she can never be quite prepared to hear you tell that you are off on another of your adventures.  Glad you and Sarit made it fine.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/08  at  03:28 AM


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This blog post is one of sixteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Holla! In The Holy Land," which chronicled a two-week journey through Israel, with jaunts into Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian West Bank.

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