It was going to be a relaxed day. Looking out from the bus, the lake was just coming into view. I was surprised, both at its beauty and at the smile that had formed on my face.
The landscape so far had been rather monotonous, unimpressive. Snaking our way lower and lower, for the lake was set into a pit lying 200 meters below sea level, the bus descended into Tiberias.
As I got out of the bus, a thought came to me: Why don’t I hitchhike? It was only 15 kilometers more, after all. Capernaum was my destination, a small town where Jesus had lived. It had gotten my interest simply because of its name.
I walked along the sea of Galilee, enjoying the heat. With its slight humidity, the weather hugged my body. It was a stark contrast to the dry, fresh Jerusalem, where I had spent the last days. Not only the weather was different. I felt different, within me.
Jersualem has special energy. A nexus of all three Abrahamic religions, hosting some of the holiest sites of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, a profound history going back thousands of years, and an incredible diversity of cultures and people, all mingling in the backdrop of a tense modern day political situation. In short, it has a unique and powerful atmosphere. Not an easy one, though. For me, it felt electric, high, driven.
Here though, there was none of that. The sea seemed to exist for itself, cut off from the rest of the world, embedded in the earth’s depression, as if sheltered in a cozy bed.
Soon enough, I found a decent spot to hitch. The familiar giddy excitement of hitching for the first time in a new country took over, and thanks to the huge, genuine smile on my face, a car stopped within two minutes.
Even though the three middle aged women were only going two kilometers, I happily got into the car; just for the experience. Like a puppy, naively curious about the world around me, I started asking questions to the woman next to me: “So today you don’t work?”
“Yes, in Israel we usually have a two-day weekend.”
Obvious, isn’t it? But somehow not. For Israel lies in a part of the world, surrounded by countries that function and feel very differently. And yet, while developed and with a high standard of living, it has a certain wildness, an attractive roughness, which only the 3rd world has.
My enthusiasm gushing over, the women asked me if I wanted to come to the hot spring with them.
“To the hot spring?”
“Yes, it is right here, inside a monastery.”
Soon after, we got to the monastery; and soon after, remembering my mission, I left. Not before taking a picture for them and asking one last question: “You know who this guy is?”
His poster was plastered behind any and every street sign, on walls, at bus stations. An old man with a beard in black clothing. The women told me that he was a famous rabbi who died last year. But some Haredi Jews, also called ultra-orthodox, believe him to have resurrected. The Messiah.
The Haredim are fascinating. The first time I saw them, I had just gotten out of Jerusalem’s central station, straight off the train from the airport.
A group of about 20 men, mostly in their teens and 20’s, some middle-aged, was blasting Hebrew dance music (not bad at all to my hears), the fast baseline audible from a hundred meters away. They seemed full of energy, hopping up and down aggressively, ecstatically releasing.
I stood mesmerized, watching for about 20 minutes. Other Haredim walked by. Tired commuters on their way home walked by. Female soldiers with assault rifles casually strapped over their shoulder walked by. It was a rich scene, gushing with complexity.
There’s a lot of Haredim in Jerusalem. They’re hard to miss, for they clothe all in black; suits and top hat and long, curled sideburns. And depending on how long the family has lived in Jerusalem, they will dress slightly differently.
As I observed them (or rather as I took the liberty of staring at them, which I was able to do shamelessly, since they never once seemed to care much at all about me, or the outside world, for that matter), one thing stood out to me: As they walk, most of the time at an aggressive speed, they often hold an old Nokia against their ear.
Strictly adhering to the Torah, they deny to use most kind of modern technology, so no smartphones. However, I wondered: Who could they be talking to all the time? Upon further staring, I noticed another thing: They never talk. They are just listening.
I continued wondering: Who are they listening to all the time? Until, after even more staring, the puzzle pieces started to come together. Thanks the older generation. Because they still read.
These old-schoolers of the old-schoolers, if you will, can be seen reading a small little book while they wait at the crosswalk, while they walk, while they do most of anything, really. And that book, of course, is the Torah. Their holy book. The most important thing in the life of a Haredi, especially a Haredi man.
In fact, traditionally, it is the men’s role to study the Torah. They are not supposed to work; but rather to study and go to pray at the synagogue. It is the woman’s role to work; and take care of the kids, and the household.
Today, Israel’s unemployment rate reflects this, showing the Haredim men at 50%, three times higher than the average in Israel. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for the Haredim women is the same as the average.
And these women work hard not only for their men, but to feed their, on average, seven children. This massive birthrate is also the reason why the Haredim population is projected to become the majority in Israel by the end of the century, up from 12% now.
This would have a major, drastic impact on the whole country. The Haredim hold on tight to their world view and lifestyle, which clashes fundamentally with most of what modern-day, secular Israel has become.
drastic impact on the whole country. The Haredim hold on tight to their world view and lifestyle, which clashes fundamentally with most of what modern-day, secular Israel has become.
90% of Haredim want Jewish law and reject military service for their men, not to mention some of them are opposed to the state of Israel and reject the authority of its government. It is sin, in their eyes, to have a state for the Jewish people before the messiah has arrived. Even the Haredim that aren’t as extreme put their Rabbi’s word above any constitution.
As fate would decree, the next car I found myself in was driven by a Haredi. He spoke little English. Not nearly as well as the average Israeli, but still enough to exchange all the necessities. The questions he asked reminded me of the ones I had received in Muslim countries: Age, marital status, religion, profession.
Interacting with him, his black top hat on the back seat next to me, I felt on the edge of a whole universe; one that I had no idea existed up until now. He was peculiar to me, as I must have been to him, for I sensed the fascination was mutual.
We were both eagerly keeping up the conversation, despite it being rather superficial due to the language barrier. Non the less, I was soaking up every tone of voice, every reaction on his face, every tiny interchange with his wife.
She was even more enigmatic to me. While he seemed somewhat soft, effeminate even, she hid behind a hard shell. But to who’s surprise, considering that she does pretty much everything a man does in other traditional societies, and, on top of that, also what a woman does.
They were on their way to some praying convention for Shabbat, and I believe, from his question: “You have a bed to sleep tonight?” that I could have crashed the party. I decided to keep on, despite the temptation. No more wild adventures, just a relaxed day at the beach.
As we approached Capernaum, he went: “Ahh, this is catholic, right?”
“This is Jesus”, I replied.
I asked if I could enter the premises with shorts and flip-flops (to which the grumpy cashier guy just nodded, saying as much as “I could care less”), and started reading the first information sign:
Jesus came to Capernaum after his teaching was rejected in Nazareth. Here, he met many of his disciples, and gave the sermon I am the bread of life.
Walking down to the shore of lake Galilee, on which’s water he had walked, I wondered: The man that founded a faith so strong to last more than two-thousand years and spread to every corner of the globe, the man by whom’s birth we literally measure time by, the man that had such unimaginable impact on humanity; his teaching were rejected. So much so that he had to move to another place. Apparently, it wasn’t just a piece of cake, being a prophet.
I sat for a long time in the shade of an ancient tree, watching motorboats and jet skis whizzing around far away on the lake. The weather was hot, beautifully engulfing me. As I closed my eyes, letting go, I noticed what I hadn’t before: There was peace.
It was as if the serenity I had first felt stepping off the bus had gradually thickened the closer I came, and now, tuning in, I could grab it. I felt deeply, powerfully at peace.
So much so that I knew that this was a place I could live in. Only one other place in the world, after four years of travelling, ever having this effect on me.
I sat for a long time. Before I left, I picked up a stone. It lay on the shore, its edges smooth from decades, perhaps even centuries, in the waves.
I decided to continue hitchhiking; it had worked well so far. And indeed, walking along the road, it didn’t take five minutes for the next car to stop. I got in the backseat, next to a baby sleeping a sleep so deep I was jealous.
A beautiful girl my age began asking me questions, friendly, but with a certain ferocity that made want to give the right answers. It was a couple, married, the husband being a bit older. He rarely spoke, and when he did, only very softly. He wore a kippa; they were orthodox, but not Haredim, not ultra-orthodox.
Soon I learned that they were settlers. Meaning they live on occupied land. Meaning the land they live on is Palestinian, but that Jewish settlers have taken it, forcefully, and that the Palestinians can no longer access this land, except in very rare exceptions.
I had only been to Ramallah at that point. Ramallah is the de-facto capital of Palestine, the official one being Jerusalem. And despite only being 30 kilometers apart, it took me two hours to get there in the evening rush hour traffic.
It seemed simple enough. Get on a bus, and ride to Ramallah. The traffic was horrible as the bus, full of Palestinians just trying to get home, made its way through the checkpoint. There wasn’t any checking though. Not in this direction.
This was my first glimpse of something I’ve of course heard about. Of something that polarized people, something that made strangers hate each other, something that got people very emotional. And, as I was about to see, something that I had no idea about.
The wall is ugly. Thick slabs of grey concrete stand four meters high, broken up only by the occasional watch tower. I’ve never seen anybody inside them though, it mostly being lifeless cameras keeping watch, which adds a creepy, surreal note to the general feeling of desolation. Black burn marks partly cover graffitis; some works of art, others works of rage.
After getting beyond the wall, I was in a different world.
Trash lined the sides of the street, crosswalks lost relevance, and everything was in Arabic. I was in Palestine. And I felt home. The chaos and mess felt snug around me, like an old shoe that doesn’t look great anymore but fits perfectly.
And yet it was different than Egypt. The people actually said “Shukran”, they seemed educated, nobody was harassing me. I was greeted with warm smiles, but not treated as alien. The food was delicious, and cheap.
On my way back, when the bus got to the checkpoint, a guy of around 20, in civil clothes, lazily wearing a bullet proof vest, got on. He was carrying an automatic assault rifle. People were holding up identity cards, and as the guy got closer to the back of the bus, the group of teenagers sitting next to me got quiet. When the guy reached us, he simply turned around, surveying the bus.
After speaking something into his walkie-talkie, he remained standing there. Seconds turned to minutes, a slight tension rising. People were turning their heads every now and again. I glanced over at the guy. He was smiling, uneasily. His finger was on the trigger.
Finally, a stunningly beautiful woman, around 30, in full military gear, of course including an automatic assault rifle, got on the bus. Something in her demeanor, although friendly, clearly conveyed the message: I am the boss.
She was trailed by another young guy, with bullet proof vest and assault rifle. He was black, with hair and facial structure that me almost certain he was from Ethiopia or Eritrea.
She checked the IDs again, this time taking a few with her. Barely glancing at my passport, the three of them got out, a handful of passengers following them wordlessly.
I watched out of the window as the scene continued: The passengers were given back their IDs, but never came back on the bus; presumably having to undergo further screenings.
Yet, the bus didn’t move. There was one ID left. The woman soldier got back on the bus, yelling a name, upon which an elderly man rose, clearly confused. She told him to come out, but he didn’t understand. It was the bus driver that had to translate, since neither the elderly man nor the woman soldier spoke both; Arabic and Hebrew.
Outside, the man was upset. Yet, there was no getting around it; he had to be checked. As he left, I saw the soldiers laughing amongst themselves. It reminded of the way my co-workers and I would laugh after some difficult client had just left.
The bus left, and I asked the teenagers next to me:
“What did they check?”
“Our colour.” A girl said, showing me her ID. It was blue.
“This means it is an Israeli ID.” She continued.
“Only with a blue one can you go to Jerusalem.”
“I see. So you have Israeli citizenship?”
A brief hesitation, then: “Yes.”
“So do you consider yourself Israeli?”
They all laugh. “NO way. We are Palestinian.”
“We don’t even think there is such a thing as Israel.” A boy chimed in.
“Yeah, of course it is difficult to live there.” The wife told me in fluent English.
“We live in a compound.”
“There are soldiers around to protect us. My husband is a soldier too.”
She started fishing around for something on the backseat next to me and the baby, found it, and pulled it out: An automatic assault rifle. She threw it back as if it were a toy.
“You know a little about the… situation here?” Looking at me through the rear-view mirror, the husband was now speaking to me.
“We can’t go to their area, and they can’t come to ours.”
Then he added: “Well, we can go to theirs, but they will kill us.”
She took over: “Often times, there are murders.”
“You know, my father came to Israel from the Netherlands, he was born there. And he always says that if it snows in Holland, nobody will talk about it, but if it snows here in Israel, everybody will talk about it for a week.”
“Yet, if there is a murder, it will be in the papers for a week in the Netherlands, but here in Israel, nobody talks about it, even for a day.”
“Ah, so your father immigrated.”
“Yes, well… You know, we don’t really consider it immigration. We come back. Most of us feel a deep connection to this land when we arrive.”
“And what is the most important things in life for you?”
“The Torah. And to make a lot of children! We only have one baby now, but I am still young. It is not uncommon to have ten children here! I consider it a duty to my nation and people. And that’s also why I accept that my husband is gone during the week; he must protect the nation.”
As I left the car, they invited me to stay with me in their home. I thanked them and, as they drove off, wished that I had the time to do so.
The next car, which was literally the very next car (I had such a big smile on my face) was also a couple, also in my age, maybe a bit older. Yet, that was about the only similarity they shared with the couple from before.
A graphical designer and a social worker living in the city, no Torah was mentioned, no kippa was worn. They were as secular as they came. However, “family” was still the answer I got when I asked about the most important thing in life. In fact, that was where they were going right now; it was Shabbat soon, after all.
Shabbat starts on Friday, just before sun set, and lasts until Saturday evening. It is the Jewish day of rest, and it is taken seriously. Not only by the ultra orthodox and the more modern orthodox, who are not allowed to do any work on Shabbat, including showering, cooking, or driving a car, (all food is prepared the day before, leaving the whole time for singing and studying the torah together), but also by the rest of the country, that often spends this time visiting family.
And, there is one more fact, especially important for a tourist, about Shabbat: Israel’s cheap, fast, and comprehensive public transportation system completely shuts down for 24 hours.
“But you want to go to Nazareth for visit or just to go to Jerusalem?”
“No no I will visit for a couple of hours and then continue to Jerusalem. Just need to know when the last bus leaves from Nazareth.”
Shai, the graphical designer, looked at the time, frowned, and said: “Probably now.” It was almost two in the afternoon.
“No problem!” I said, saying my thanks and getting out at the intersection, now only 20 kilometers from Nazareth.
I was optimistic. Hitching had worked so well up until now, I had no doubt that I would comfortably reach Jerusalem before nightfall, which was only 150 kilometers away.
I, of course, hadn’t planned on visiting Nazareth originally, envisioning a quiet day by the sea of Galilee, but Nazareth was right here after all, and with it another significant place of Jesus.
Then, things changed. I had a great spot, a good amount of traffic (not too much, not too little), but somehow, I didn’t get picked up anymore. I could tell that the people looked more Arabic, buy why would that be a problem?
Eventually, half an hour later, a Jewish hydroelectric engineer picked me up. He wasn’t going to Nazareth but could bring me a good bit closer. He was going to a town close by, a Jewish town. From him I learned that Nazareth has a pretty much homogenous Arabic population, with equal parts Christian Arabic and Muslim Arabic.
“What do you think is the biggest issue facing Israel today?”
He snorted: “It’s obvious, no? The occupation. You can’t control millions of people without giving them basic rights.”
The settlements started after the six-day war, when the Arab countries surrounding Israel attacked. In that war, Israel won a lot of territory. Territory it wasn’t originally allotted by the United Nations Partition Plan.
This was the plan drawn after World War II, including a state for the Jewish people, who just suffered the worst genocide in recorded history. However, it was never accepted by the Palestinians, the Arab people living there, since the plan foresaw that most land would go to the Jews, leaving the smaller part for an independent nation of Palestine.
Amongst the territory Israel won in the six-day war was Sinai, which it later gave back to Egypt as part of their peace agreement, the Golan Heights, which is still disputed by Syria to this day, and the West Bank.
Israel then faced a choice. Does it absorb the West Bank, making it Israel, giving more than a million Arabs living there citizenship? Does it give it back to Jordan who governed it before? Or does it let it become an independent nation?
Time went by, and as the government couldn’t make up its mind, Israelis, without their governments consent, began moving into the West Bank, settling it, illegally so under international law.
Israel never made that decision. It never granted the Palestinians citizenship, it never allowed them to be their own state, it never gave it back to Jordan.
Today, half a million Jews live in the area, their settlements interwoven through Arab towns, fully protected and supported by the government and its military. It controls the movement of people inside Palestine, it controls its borders, it restricts access to water sources and farming lands, favouring the settlers.
Even though Palestine is recognised by the vast majority of countries in the world as a sovereign nation (not the United States and Western Europe), most Palestinians travel internationally using a Jordanian Passport, which does not grant them Jordanian citizenship though.
“And what solution do you see?” I ask the hydroelectric engineer.
“Two independent states”, he says, without hesitation.
It was during my second trip into Palestine that I began to truly understand.
Bethlehem was first that day. The bus dropped me off right at the wall, a short trip from Jerusalem’s center. Together with all of the people from the bus, I went through the checkpoint. Again, in this direction, there was no staff, no control. On the other side, I encountered the wall once more, only much more intimately this time.
It cuts right through a street, separating what once must have been a neighbourhood. The watchtowers are oppressive. Graffitis are absolutely everywhere, and there is a kind of an open-air museum, right on the wall: In the form of posters and pictures, the plight and resistance of the Palestinians is depicted. The harassment at checkpoints, the rage of having their land taken away, the impossibility of visiting family that live mere kilometers away.
In Hebron, things are even more extreme. The settlers here have taken the center of the city, splitting its old town. In the middle of a huge Palestinian city, Arab through and through, there comes a bastion, fences, barbed wire, huge walls, Israeli flags, and checkpoints. It is the most surreal place I have ever been.
Entering a checkpoint, two young solders ask me where I’m from, then my religion. “Switzerland” and “Christian” they seem to like, for the guy, after I passed the checkpoint, opens a window and smiles at me.
“Look! You see these two children?!”
He points at two young boys sitting a few meters away from us.
“Don’t give them money. They are terrorists!”
I don’t know what to say.
“You know terrorism? 9/11?”
He makes a gesture of a plane crashing into a tower.
“Terrorism!” He says, his eyes unpleasantly intense. He is almost laughing.
“Yes, I understand. I won’t give them money.”
I have no idea what’s going on. What is this place? Behind me, Arabs are quickly passing the checkpoint, looking down at the ground in defiance, faces tight.
I start walking, Hebron’s biggest mosque on my left. At one of the entries, two Arabs stand guard. They smile at me: “What’s your religion?” “Christian”
“I am sorry, but you can’t enter.”
I walk further down, the streets are deserted. There is a hut with four soldiers, three men and one woman. They are a bit older, maybe my age. I ask if I can pass, see Haredim in the distance, coming out of the mosque. I can’t pass. I’m Christian. One soldier tells me that different days are reserved for different religions.
I don’t care, am still processing. A Haredi walks by, entering with ease. An Arab woman looks at him, and I look at her looking at him. He is alien to her.
I continue walking, pass another soldier. He asks me for my passport, relaxes when everything checks out. He is young, no more than 20. After he initiates some friendly small talk, I venture:
“So, only Jews live here?”
“No, in this building…”
He points behind him.
“And in this one… there are Arabs.”
I stare at him, not comprehending. I keep up a casual tone, try to keep him talking. He seems to like the attention.
“There is some… tension between them, but we are here to keep it safe. The Arabs here aren’t bad. The bad ones live outside.”
He points behind me, towards the houses on the hill. I don’t see any separation.
“The bad ones…” I echo.
“Yes, the terrorists. But we are here to protect the people.”
I smile, say thank you and begin to leave.
A group of young children and their parents walk past; all the kids greet the soldier merrily. Then a group of Haredim pass. I stare, and they actually look at me. I make eye contact for a few seconds, smile warmly and nod my head at one of them. He, looking right at me, shows no reaction whatsoever. I see them turning to the soldier, who fills them in: A tourist.
As they walk off, the soldier yells at me from a distance: “They say they love you!”
I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.
I continue walking, unable to shake off an eerie feeling. Tattered Israeli flags flapping in the wind line the empty streets. There is a little playground, a young guy doing bodyweight exercises.
I come up to a big bastion. Inside, behind barbed wire and fences, I can see two soldiers grappling in riot gear: exercising. One soldier, in front of the gate, is watching them. I stand and stare. The soldier notices me and comes up to me.
He looks like he is 16. Smiling at me, he asks to see my passport. He hands it back, and I ask him where he’s from. He somehow seems excited that I took interest in him and opens up.
I ask him about the base. I ask him if I can take a picture. “Yeah, of course.” He says, without hesitation. I ask him how many soldiers are stationed here. He answers, but it’s obvious he’s guessing. He’s just a kid. A kid with an automatic assault rifle.
I continue walking, the sun slowly setting. A man and his kid walk past, and I try to strike up a conversation in English, then Arabic, because I realise he’s not Jewish, but Arab. I ask him if he lives here, and he says yes. I ask him how it is, to which he starts muttering under his breath. I don’t understand, but the message is clear.
The guy that was doing bodyweight exercises before walks past me with a friend. I approach them, say hello. They are soldiers, around 20 years old. I make some small talk and then they leave, going up the street up a hill. In front of me is a checkpoint. I walk the other way, after the soldiers.
And I begin to understand just how big this place is. Security cameras and soldiers are posted at regular intervals. Going deeper and deeper, I come across another soldier, and the two guys who were working out. They are listening to trap music. Just a few teenagers hanging out, basically. They have a dog and show me the tricks he can do. I want to go further up; they say they have to ask if it’s ok.
“Are you visiting the tombs?”
“I’m just walking around.”
“Just walking around…” He looks at the DSLR in my hand.
“But you’re not a journalist or something like that. Just a tourist, right?”
“Just a tourist.”
“You can take pictures, but you have to tell us first.”
We wait for a while, and then they get clearance over the radio: I can go.
I go up even more, come across another bastion. A soldier enters through a door. It seems ramshackle, made of thin metal. Everything somehow seems improvised, hastily made. More music sounds from the inside. I investigate, come across a young soldier patrolling. He seems startled.
“Are you a tourist?”
“Are you going to the tombs.”
“It’s this way”, he says, smiling.
The hydroelectric engineer drops me off at a bus station ten kilometers from Nazareth. I wait for a long time, but nobody picks me up. I get a few stares; some teenagers make gestures at me. I’m not sure if they think I’m Jewish.
I get on the next bus, spend most time stuck in a traffic jam trying to get into the centre. The bus driver won’t let me out of the bus, even though we are standing still for some minutes, nothing moving. “It’s a law, only at the station.” That’s one thing I’ve never thought to hear in the middle east.
When I get out, I walk though Nazareth, but don’t visit the church. The whole ordeal has taken much longer than I thought. It’s four o’clock by now. I’m hungry, haven’t eaten since the – amazing – breakfast buffet in the hostel. I get some flatbread and some peanuts, and a bottle of water. The peanuts are disgusting, have some pink sugar on them. It costs me almost five dollars.
Besides, I don’t feel Nazareth that much. I try to hitch out, wait for almost two hours at a good spot headed for Tel-Aviv. The traffic is plenty, but I get absolutely nothing. Except for a few laughs, again.
Realising that this won’t work, I change sides. I’m sunburnt. Shabbat has kicked in full force, there’s almost no busses anymore. I need to get back to Tiberias, where I first started hitching today. There, I know of a bus that is leaving at nine in the evening, straight to Jerusalem.
I get picked up pretty quickly by a Jew. “You’ve got big balls, travelling like this.” But he doesn’t go far. I have to walk out of town for another hour, the sun setting, covering my burnt neck with my t-shirt.
I get to a bus station, and incredibly enough, a bus is scheduled in 20 minutes. I’ve no idea where it’s going, but I get on when it arrives. I cheer every right turn, and it ends up going far.
It goes far enough that I’m in Jewish territory again, where I get picked up by the third car passing. Two young guys racing in an electric car, which accelerates so quickly I feel butterflies in my stomach. They’re going exactly where I need to.
“Are you sure there is a bus to Jerusalem now?”
“Yeah, I found it online last night, on the bus company’s website.”
After a minute: “My phone doesn’t show anything.”
A suspicion starts to creep up on me.
We arrive, and I’m happy to be back at the lake. After another half hour of walking, in what has become a ghost town almost void of people, that suspicion starts to take on more form: I’ll sleep on the beach tonight.
For the bus station is completely closed, not a thing moving inside, despite the bus supposedly leaving in an hour. I find one middle aged guy walking around, on the phone.
As I get to him, he hangs up. He speaks good English, has lived in Italy. He’s interested in spirituality and workshops, and I share. But he’s not able to listen, cuts me off mid-sentence every time to say something. And there’s no bus.
I need wifi. He takes me to a hotel, where I check what I already know. There’s no bus until tomorrow afternoon, the one at nine has disappeared. The hostel in town is expensive, and I don’t feel like paying twice for a night anyway.
I look inside my little day bag. A camera, a microfiber towel, a book, and an almost empty bottle of water. The sun has set. My phone has 15% battery left.
At least its not cold, I think. But sleeping on the ground without anything, it’ll get chilly, I worry.
“So, what will you do?” The guy asks me. I stammer a bit, talk about the beach. I wonder; wonder what I’ve been wondering since I saw him.
“You know, sometimes I do couch surfing.”
There it is.
“You think I could sleep in your place?”, I say happily, like a kid.
“But I charge, you know.”
Wha, wha, wha, whaaa, it goes in my head.
“And how much?”
“Ehhh, I don’t know, I think the minimum is 50 Euros.”, he stammers.
What minimum, it’s your fucking place. I think.
“Thank you.” I say.
He comes down 50%, but I don’t feel it. And I don’t feel sleeping on the beach. I could manage, but it would cost me the whole day tomorrow, and I’ve stuff planned; stuff I would miss out on because I’m not flexible with time. So I decide to go back. To Jerusalem. By hitchhiking.
Just not through Nazareth.
He accompanies me to the main road, offers me his couch for free in the last moment. But I go, start walking along the road, dusk encroaching.
A car picks me up immediately. A chill guy with decent electronic music playing. I wish the ride would never end, but he doesn’t go far, dropping me off at end of town.
There, I walk, fast. I don’t dare stop moving, want to avoid thinking about what I’m doing, because it doesn’t seem like a good idea anymore.
Some drunk and high teenagers on a joy ride drive me a few hundred meters, before they become bored with me, and I repulsed by them. I continue walking along the road, which is becoming a highway. There is a trickle of cars, which I hail whenever they approach. At least the road is well lit; for now.
I keep an eye on the bush next to me, looking out for a possible sleeping spot.
But it doesn’t come to that. One car stops not too long afterwards. It’s a Ukrainian Jew that gave up everything and started a new life here when he was 19. He didn’t know anybody, didn’t even know the language. Now he’s married with a son and has his own tech-startup. He tells me his life story, and I gladly listen. He is going all the way to Haifa. From there, I should be able to get a ride to Tel-Aviv, he says.
“Even at this time?” It’s past nine.
“Why not? Now is the time to go to Tel-Aviv!”
He tells me which road to take and at which gas station to wait at. I am glad. Glad for him, his advice, his company, his humanity. I let go.
We say goodbye in downtown Haifa, where it is humid. I wait 20 minutes for the tram. He told me to ride it until I see two big buildings. I do so and walk to the mentioned gas station.
It is ten in the evening, pitch black, but indeed, there’s a lot of traffic. The gas station is well populated: People eating at the fast food places, guys showing off and hanging out next to their cars, and people filling up their car with petrol.
The latter I approach but feel a bit shy. I try once or twice, with a gentle smile and a respectful distance. Then I give up, walk along the road, looking for a spot to hitch. I find none, go back to the gas station.
There, I restlessly pace up and down, my lower back aching. As minutes turn to hours, I lose all inhibition, start asking every car. Reactions range from smiles to discomfort to disgust. The one or two people that are actually going to Tel-Aviv don’t have space. Until I ask a big guy, which isn’t going to Tel-Aviv, but in the right direction. He’s got kind eyes.
“My family…” he gestures, meaning he can’t take me, a stranger. Two young boys sit in the back, his wife having just returned from the minimarket. I understand, thank him and begin to leave, when his wife, wearing a hijab, asks me where I’m from. I answer. Then he says: “I want to help you.”
He and his wife proceed to try to get me a ride online for the next half hour, until I finally just get in with them. The two young boys in the back rejoice in the purest way imaginable when the ride continues. After more than two hours, I am also glad to be moving again.
We drive through the night for another half hour. His wife, who was first polite and reserved, energetically and in perfect english, speaks out against the occupation after I ask about it. She has nothing against Jews, but she doesn’t accept the state of Israel. She can live side by side with Jews, but this land, all of it, is Palestine.
I love the family. A pure father, a pure mother, with pure kids. I feel so comfortable in their company, I wish I could just go home with them instead of going back out into the night.
And yet, as they drop me off at another gas station, a part of me is looking forward to the next ride. All the rides I’ve had so far have simply been amazing. Almost everybody speaks English fluently, so that I am able to have actual conversations with all these educated people, whose background and perspectives are so different from each other, yet they are all just a pleasure to be around.
It’s one a.m. The highway going to Tel-Aviv is still busy. But the gas station I’m at isn’t right on the highway. I wait there for some time, wrapping my microfiber towel around me; the night has gotten a bit chilly. I wonder how I’ll ever get a ride looking like this, decide that I won’t, and start walking.
I walk along the highway for more than an hour. There comes a hard shoulder, even lit, but the cars are going too fast. I walk to the next town and beyond, sometimes debating if I should sleep here on the beach. If it were day, I could see the Mediterranean to my right. But I don’t. I continue walking.
I somehow like it. The night is different. I’m drifting. I have a lot of time, a lot of space. Thoughts come and go. One such thought: Hmm, I haven’t eaten for a long time.
Then, after a minute, a rumbling in my stomach, a feeling of hunger. As an experiment: I am not hungry. My body is using its fat reserves perfectly. The hunger subsides after a minute, never to return for the rest of the night.
I get to another gas station, this time right on the highway. Tel-Aviv is less than 40 minutes away, yet it seems unreachable, let alone Jerusalem.
In front of the gas station, there sit a woman and a man. I ask for the bathroom. They both look at me, the woman pointing to her right. The two seem completely void of life. In the bathroom, there is no running water.
I sit. Sporadically, people drift in and out of the mini market to buy soft drinks and chips. I ask a Russian filling up if he goes to Tel-Aviv. From his look, I take it he doesn’t.
Somehow, I like it here. Head on my knees, I can rest my lower back. I’m not tired, but it feels good not to be walking next to the highway anymore, or to be constantly on the lookout for the next ride. After half an hour, when I look up, the lifeless woman and man are gone.
A car pulls up, and a woman a bit older than me gets out of the passenger seat. I look at the driver seat, and bingo, everything checks out; a young couple with spare room going in the right direction, no luxury car or clothes, a rather bohemian vibe. This is my ride if I’ve ever seen it.
I approach the guy, and play everything right. He understands, tells me he’ll check in with the misses.
I go back, let them talk when she comes back. The car pulls up next to me, she asks me where I’m going: “Well… I’m kind of making my way back to Jerusalem. It’s been a bit difficult because of Shabbat, so any kilometers you could take towards Tel-Aviv I’d be very grateful for.”
“We can take you to the North of Tel-Aviv, ok?”
For the next half hour, I enjoy yet another thoroughly enjoyable conversation. Soft, quality music is playing. They were at the beach with friends, but decided last minute that they’d rather sleep in an actual bed tonight. Getting sleepy whilst driving, they needed to get some sugar in. Lucky me.
They organise dinners for friends and acquaintances for a living (the comment one Armenian guy that picked me up some weeks ago after hearing what I do runs through my mind: “Well… if it brings the money…”).
Love is the most important thing for her, and love shows itself in many different ways in her life. The occupation is the biggest issue for Israel, and two states are the solution. They want nothing to do with the settlers.
“Where are you staying in Jerusalem?”
“Ahh yeah, the best place!”
“Their breakfast is one of my main reasons I try so hard to get back in time…”
They laugh in agreement.
They drop me off at another gas station, and we have a warm goodbye.
At the gas station, there are some young guys that seem shocked to see me. They don’t speak English and are unable to fathom that somebody speaks a different language than them. When they get that I don’t speak Hebrew, the interaction on their part becomes awkward, but with a hint of fascination, as if they were talking to an alien. I ask them: “Jerusalem?”, to which they all burst out laughing.
At least there is a functioning bathroom, where I wash my face and hands, fill up on water. Another guy pulls up, friendly towards my inquiry of his destination. Beer Sheba, the desert. Not exactly where I need to go, but he could take me further South into the city proper, for I realise that where I am now, I’ll never get to Jerusalem. My phone has 10% left, and I know I’ll need it to navigate the maze of highways.
After my third inquiry, he’s not so forthcoming anymore, so I start walking. I memorise the way, which will take me about an hour. Soon enough, I walk past a gas station. It’s on the right side this time, meaning I could get someone here to take me into the city. From then on, it’s still the question of getting to Jerusalem. One step at a time.
At the gas station, some teenagers are recording a “Tik-Tok” (as they later proudly tell me) of one of them drink gasoline. It’s three a.m. in Tel-Aviv, and this is the reality I’m faced with. Another car with teenagers pulls up. Two girls wearing basically nothing get out, all the guys staring after them, the little brain they had completely turned off. I decide to walk.
I walk through the city, barefoot (better for my lower back) with the microfiber towel still draped around me. A curious creature of the night, I am amongst my own kind: Two shirtless guys with suspiciously big eyes, drunk youth messing around on electric scooters, an occasional taxi, a police car, a guy walking his dog.
With the last bit of battery, I figure out which road to take for Jerusalem. But it is far, almost two hours by foot. I stand on the ramp of the main highway, which still has plenty of cars. It would take me where I need to go, but the situation seems hopeless. I’m committed though now, no sleeping on a park bench for me. I’ve entered another state altogether, sleep and food being abstract concepts.
After ten minutes, just as I was doing the downward dog to stretch my lower back, the first car passes. Not the best impression to make, I scold myself, but to my surprise, the car still stops. I run up to it and a guy in his early 20’s opens the window.
“Shalom. Do you speak English?”
“Well, I’m making my way back to Jerusalem, so if you…”
“Ohh, no. Sorry.” He starts driving away.
“Wait! Where are you going?”
“Uhhh, next exit.”
“Can I come?”
“No sorry, I don’t…”
He never finishes the sentence. I realise he’s high and paranoid, and I can’t blame him.
The next car, after ten more minutes, slows down, but when I go up to it, it drives away. I want to leave, but somehow this spot is actually kind of working. Ten more minutes and my feeling pays off: I get picked up by two men and a woman, going home from the club. They will take me to road number 1, which leads straight to Jerusalem.
There, I find a decent spot to hitch, a bus station right before the highway, which also leads to the airport. There’s a decent number of cars, and a guy sleeping on the bench. I am happy, confident I’ll get a ride straight to Jerusalem, or at least to the airport. It is four in the morning.
Time passes. The guy on the park bench sometimes sits, cradling his legs: they must be a bit cold; he’s only wearing shorts. One car pulls over, a guy gets out and vomits.
An Ethiopian or Eritrean tries to mug the guy on the park bench; I call him out, angrily. He apologizes. I notice he’s drunk. I tell him to go, but he doesn’t understand. I shove him, and to my surprise he falls: A slow motion, drunken kind of fall. When he is further away, he half-heartedly yells: “Fuck you. Fuck you.” I stand and watch him.
Some twenty minutes later, I hear something behind me. It’s him, falling through a bush. He must have been waiting for his chance to mug the guy. I consider what happens if he calls friends, feel confident that I’ll be able to outrun them. The park bench guy sleeps through all of it. No cars stop for me.
Hours pass, hours during which the traffic starts to change. It’s not limousines and luxury BMW’s anymore, but sedans and family cars. Dawn is on the horizon; there is a jogger, a cyclist, a guy collecting electric scooters. I hum.
Lost in time, I hum Aphex Twin’s Nr. 3 for a long time, sometimes resting my lower back by sitting on the bus bench, taking a break from hailing the cars. The humming blocks out all thoughts, all emotions, everything. It puts me in a tranquil, detached state. I don’t want to get picked up. I don’t want to reach Jerusalem. I don’t want.
I just drift; drift and hitch.
As the sun rises, traffic is becoming sparser. Even so, one guy stops. I’m startled, need a moment to snap out of my dream.
“This is taxi.” It’s not. He’s just looking to make money.
I walk away, saying nothing. He drives away, saying nothing.
I ponder the increasingly more likely possibility of spending a sleep-deprived day in Tel-Aviv until the first bus leaves in the afternoon. But then I see a minibus, full. After twenty minutes, another. And I realise there must be minibuses going from somewhere.
With the last percent of battery left on my phone, I memorise the half hour walk to the next big bus station, from where I suspect they are leaving from. I begin my journey, full of hope.
The park bench guy is still sleeping. As I pass, I see that he’s not homeless; he’s got decent shoes and clothes. I wonder what his story is; what kind of night he’s had?
I get to the station, and ask the first guy standing around: “Jerusalem?” He points to another guy, and I feel a rush of relief. As I sit down and happily pay for the overpriced ride, waiting for the van to fill up, I can’t believe it. It’s seven in the morning. Since there is no traffic, we’ll arrive in an hour.
I’ll make it in time for breakfast.
Thank you for reading.
My short trip to Israel and Palestine makes up one of the richest and most intense travel experiences I’ve had. I’ve never been in such a dense and complex place. I encourage you to go and experience it for yourself.