(originally posted on the Abbess blog on Monday 8th January 2007)
Or perhaps I should call this particular episode tales of Jerico?
On Wednesday we hired a car. It took an interminably long time. Jem had warned us that this was often the case, and that if we had breakfast at 7.30 we would eventually get on the road at around ten. In that respect he was both right....and wrong. We almost got on the road at 9am, but as we excitedly clambered our way into the shiny silver Chevrolet and started the engine, the
mirror promptly broke off and landed in the passenger footwell with a thud. We did toy with the idea of simply driving away, but caution made us point our the fault to the car hire boses, who offered us coffee while they attempted to fix it. Half an hour, and a ton of something that looked like cement later we returned to our car, started the engine, and once again our mirror decided to do some sort of perverse acrobatics. This time in landed in the driver's lap.
Then a short, but intriguing journey around the one way system of East Jerusalem began, as we followed a car hire employee's vehicle to a place that does repairs to car mirrors. I must admit that my heart was heavy. I thought we'd end up spending the entire morning on a garage forecourt when we could be journeying to Jerico on the bus. But, when I saw the enormous roll of tape covered in Arabic advertising that the mechanic was brandishing I decided that things were looking up. Actually they did an extremely speedy and successful job of the mirror, and with the aid of a couple of pieces of paper wedged in the right direction, we could even see through the back window using it!
And so we set off, as predicted at 10Am, but having had an interesting introduction to the mirror-repair business.
We then drove East out of town, heading for Qumran. It was Louise's first introduction to driving in the Middle East. (you could tell by the way she was wincing!). It was incredible how quickly the weather changed too as the road made its rapid descent from 900 metres above sea level to 400 metres below at the dead sea. We seemed to spontaneously skip from winter to Summer (or British Summer at least). Jerusalem was colder than York had been when I left there, but at Qumran I took my socks off, and basked in the sunshine. It was so nice to be released from the cloud at last and bring out the sunglasses.
After Qumran we headed fro Jerico to look for Zaccheus' sycamore tree. None of the locals seemed to know where it was, but we followed the directions in the pilgrimage guidebook, and found it, with its painted trunk, growing by the side of the road.
A two thousand year old tree, with white paint on its gnarled, half-hollow trunk, and great branches that would still support a climber now. But we never really had time for quiet contemplation,as we were immediately decended upon by some extremely friendly souvenier sellers. We chatted to them though, and once again, they paid us the complement of presuming we were ex-pats, rather than tourists.
Jerico was amazing though, and I was really glad I went there, and not just for the wonderful weather. (I read somewhere that in days-gone-by weathy residents of Jersualem and Bethlehem overwintered there). No, the thing that really thrilled me was that everywhere we went locals greeted us with "welcome, welcome" in English. We were treated like VIPs simply for taking the trouble to visit their town. A moving and humbling thing indeed. For I couldn't help thinking of all those people who are scared to venture into Palestinian territory, for fear of what they might encounter, when what we were encountering was people who simply wished to make us welcome.
We lunched outside, the only time during our trip when we were anywhere hot enough to do this. We had the usual mediterranean tapas of hummus, tahini, salads, olives, aubergine and freshly baked flatbread, but this selection was particularly nice. The restaraunt, Al Khayam, had a pond in the middle of a garden full of orange trees, heavily laden with fruit, and the owner of the restaraunt encouraged us to pick the fruit from the tree and eat that for dessert. I must admit that the fruit was amazing! The peel was so full of juice that the zest sprayed through the air and filled our nostrils with zingy perfume. It was so relaxing, simply sitting in the sunshine, that I found it hard to leave really.
Then we went to investigate where a new Orthodox monastery was being built nearby. A priest at the cathedral had told us that icon painters were staying there, in order to paint the new church, and that it was a unique opportunity to see them at work on the frescoes. Sadly we must have come at the wrong time, for the place was deserted and noone answered the door, but I was glad we saw the outside, even if we couldn't get inside, and just knowing that new works of art were being made in a place where we often simply hear of destruction was in itself a sign of hope for me.
The only problem with crossing the border, is that it always takes an age to cross back, and this journey was no exception.
We had hoped to get to Wadi Qelt to look at the monastery before the light failed, but we had a 45 minute wait while the cars in front had their papers and their vehicles checked thoroughly. When our turn came, they simply glanced at our passports
(I'm not sure we even opened them!) and waved us on our way, but by that time the light had grown dimmer. Still I counted myself extremely lucky. I know that 45 minutes is nothing really in comparison with some of the waits people have had to suffer.
When we reached the wadi, we chatted to the Beduin. As the moon rose, shining so brightly over the desert that it cast great shadows, one of them mounted his donkey and said he was heading to the supermarket in Jerico for some shopping. As we watched his figure climb over the hills of the Judean wilderness and disappear as a dark comma on the nighttime hill I couldn't help thinking that some things never change. Two thousand years or more, people would have to travel to the nearest town to buy provisions by donkey. The only difference is that these days it comes in a plastic packet, and is sold in a supermarket.
Labels: holy land, jerico, jerusalem, travel