Today I was removed from a pubic bus but fear (or laugh) not for the title is more dramatic than the experience thankfully was. If anything though the circumstances that warranted my removal make the crux of the story and that was due to my own monumental stupidity. Ok, that's a little harsh, doopy forgetfulness.
One of my reasons for returning to Jerusalem was that its central location would mean it would be easy to visit another Palestinian city (in addition to the already-visited town of Bethlehem). The cities I'd heard of these past few weeks included: Jericho, Hebron, Nablus and Ramallah. If I was still with my latest travel friends and we still had the car no doubt we would have visited all and probably stayed over in one or two Palestinian cities but sadly that opportunity has passed.
Research suggested there wouldn't be much to see or do in either of the aforementioned cities so there wasn't really a 'best one' as such. In the end I decided on visiting Ramallah chiefly because of its close proximity to Jerusalem and also because it's regarded as the Palestinian capital. In fact, the easy choice would have been to have not gone out and just stayed in this awesomely large and fantastic hostel sitting on the computer whilst eating, drinking and generally not having a worry in the world. But that'd have been way too easy and not very reporter-esque, right?
Subsequently my hopes and expectations for today were realistic and so I prepared a very basic itinerary for what I could try and see in Ramallah. As such don't expect a glorious picture fest today but instead there's some basic imagery, a few facts and some observations from this troubled territory the world knows as Palestine.
Immediately upon entering Palestine, I saw an environmental difference. Suddenly the green, clean and reasonable expanse of land I've been used to these few weeks felt more crowded, more congested and a lot more dirty. Then again, it's probably fair to say that most land border territories between separating countries isn't going to offer glitz and glamour but equally when you hear of Palestine, the picture you are painted is certainly more of an impoverished one, not a wealthy one. That is of stark contrast to its wealthy neighbouring state in which one of the biggest problems you hear from young Israeli locals is that their wages aren't high enough to cover the expensive standard of living.
Did you know, for example, that Tel Aviv (Israel) has the second-largest economy in the entire Middle East behind Abu Dhabi?
Ramallah is a mere 20 kilometres north from Jerusalem but don't think though that this short 20 kilometres distance would mean it would be quick reach as that really wouldn't be the case. Indeed less quality roads, congested smaller land, plenty of cars, border crossings and even the occasional impromptu accident would result in delays. Although we'd reach our destination in under an hour, I still don't think I've been part of such stand-still traffic for long a time and that includes the mayhem and madness of Cairo.
The bus finished up its route at the central Ramallah bus station which was directly in town. Conveniently this would make it less than 15 minutes walk to reach my first sight of the day; the burial place of Yasser Arafat! Even if you don't know who he is, you may remember his name from the news over the last few decades!?
I've learnt that Yasser Arafat was the founder and leader of the Fatah political party. He was born in Egypt and would later become the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from 1969 until his death in 2004. Without getting out of my depth politically, I think it's accepted that the PLO’s primary objective was to gain (although you could argue regain) the land handed by the UN to Israel back in the late 1940s. Unsurprisingly then the main aim of the PLO has always been Palestinian nationalism and the creation of an official Palestinian state.
As such the PLO is considered the primary representative of the Palestinian people and look here for I appear to have stumbled on what I assume are there headquarters which was a short walk from Yasser's tomb and on route.
The second attraction, the Taybeh Brewing Company, I didn't actually get to see. Yes OK, no big deal missing out on a brewery but I can't imagine there are too many
Palestinian breweries so that'd have been cool to visit but the reality was that it was too far away by foot. Today then did highlight that in some cases, travelling with a second person really can be advantageous with the cost of a taxi halved and of course, someone to have shared a beer with!
Instead I walked through the streets which really were fairly chaotic and briefly reminiscent of the streets of Cairo but with less horns, less pollution and certainly less people.
As you'll see from a couple of the photos below, today was not overly sunny and that is significant because for a just a few minutes today, maybe five, I experienced a strange phenomenon fall from the sky. They were fluid based droplets of water very reminiscent of rain-drops. No, wait! They actually were rain-drops and that's significant due to my 'rain count' of the year. You see in the last 2.5 months there have been two afternoon periods of light rain and both times I've been inside on the machine. Today then was the third afternoon and the first time I felt rain........and that was only for a whole five minutes or so. Quite a statistic hey and one I genuinely fear I'm going to struggle with when I return the UK.
The local market was thriving and noisy with people promoting their produce in loud, shouty Arabic. A walk through a market always guarantees an authentic local experience but this was one I'd sampled and enjoyed many times over these last two months. I purchased some fruit and veg to take back with me but not before I enjoyed my first falafel in the last, I dunno, say three days lol. This one however came with a price tag that instinctively had me asking the chap twice to confirm. Considering the average falafel pitta price in Israel is around 15 shekels (3.50 euros), to be asked for just 4 was by far the cheapest I've had in my three weeks here. I knew there would be a price differential between Israel and Palestine but one third surprised me a little.
"Please come with us, Sir"
The Israel and Palestine borders are no joking matter. Heck, who can forget the size of that separation wall I showed you all in my Bethlehem post. Well, would you believe me if I told you I packed all I needed to pack for my day out except........... my passport!?
Think about this for a moment. This wasn't me trying to buy alcohol and a shop assistant needing some age validation, this was me trying to enter a different country and we all know that the Israel/Palestine relations are not loving to say the least. This was pretty serious and it certainty felt so when that forgetful realisation hit me twenty minutes into the bus journey. I recall seeing a guard from my bus window and this led me to think of my passport (or lack of in this case). We all know that heart-sinking feeling and this was one of those moments. I really couldn't believe I'd forgotten it and there was also nothing I could do but just sit and hope. Therefore for a while longer I anxiously awaited to see what my fate would be. I waited and waited and yet we kept driving until we reached our destination. Fantastic, or so I thought, for it would be the return journey that would receive the proper border control treatment!
After my few hours wandering the relatively dirty streets of Ramallah, it was time for the bus back. Soon enough though the slow agonising approach to border control was shortly upon us. I sat on the largely empty bus praying that the door would not open and that we would be waived on. Wishful thinking on my part based on many other previous check-points during my travels.
Unfortunately for me, the door of the bus opened and I remember saying to myself, out-loud naturally, 'Ahh well, this is gonna be interesting'...
Three armed soldiers entered the bus and began to 'do their thing'. They eventually reach me and so I take it upon me to take the initiative...
'Yeah hi, um, I've left my passport at my hostel in Jerusalem. I'm really sorry but all I have is my bank card. Is this OK?'.
The soldiers look at each other and talk in Hebrew. One responds: 'Ok, identification with your photo. This will be OK'.
Now get this, I actually didn't! I had nothing, nada, niente - except a currently useless bank card. Unimpressed, the inevitable happened: 'Please come with us, Sir'.
And that was that. I was ejected from the bus and escorted to somewhere inside whilst I watched my bus drive on through the border without me. As if that wasn't bad enough, think back to what I'd been through those weeks earlier entering the country. It's fair to say I was beginning to worry unaware of what my options were at this point.
All's well that ends well
As you know by now, I can't say enough about Israel and its people and weirdly this appears to extend to even their security forces! Over the weeks I've been with amongst people that pose for selfies with acceptant soldiers, I've been offered sweets by one and I've had several warningly pleasant smiles from some of the female 'warriors'.
Thankfully that would be the case here too, even on this super important border crossing. Two of the three soldiers that came on to the bus continued with their duties whilst remaining soldier escorted me inside to border control. On this occasion, and apart from asking me some very basic initial questions, he went on to talk about Manchester United! Lol. The soldier then proceeded to make a call on his mobile (or certainly he made it look like he did). Moments later he ended his call and then asked me to place my rucksack on the security system conveyor belt. Oh God, not that again...
But unlike my last ordeal, this was over in like ten seconds! The bag was of course OK and so I was simply free to go, free to re-enter Israel. Woooooo! Now none of you saw that happening huh. Believe me, neither did I...
It so happened that there were various buses outside this check-point area. The same guard escorted me to a bus, confirmed in Hebrew with the driver that it would drop me close to Damascus gate and proceeded to wish me well. God, I love these people. Five minutes later we were off and away...
So Shakespeare, you were certainly right on this occasion: all's well that ends well.