Sunday, March 1, 2020

Visiting Palestine

by Regin Reyno

Tuyok
Day 23
December 1, 2019
11th leg: Nablus, Palestine

What comes into your mind when you hear the word, Palestine? What comes into mind, when you read the word, Palestine? 

Palestine.

When I was in Rome in 2017, I befriended a fellow traveler who was having his solo European tour. I found out he is from Palestine. Then, told me that I should go visit Palestine or if ever I’m in the area, I should contact him and he’ll show me around. 

Indeed, after two years, I found myself heading to the Arab bus station in Jerusalem, looking for the bus bound for Ramallah, Palestine. From there, I’m going to transfer for my final destination, which is Nablus: Palestine’s biggest city. I was by myself: no tour agency, no tour guide, no companion; independent travel.


After asking people at the bus station and confirming with the driver, I found the bus. It wasn’t full. There were many vacant seats. I chose a window seat. I’m heading to one of the less visited places on Earth. Not a lot of tourists visit Nablus. Although there are tour agencies going to Palestine, they mostly just go to Jericho, Hebron, and Bethlehem. But I was heading to a more unknown land. I wanted to savor the view along the way. 

After a few minutes, we were at the border. I saw the wall that divided Israel and Palestine. It was mind-blowing. I remember hearing about this on the news before; the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank part of Palestine, and there I was, inside a bus, looking at the wall through my window, as we crossed the border. There was a check-point but they did not inspect us, the passengers. 

I immediately noticed an abrupt change in the environment the moment we crossed the border. It’s crazy: to think it’s just one, geographically: just a border line, a wall division, and you can immediately see the difference in your surroundings: the aura, buildings, the vibe, the charm, it’s just different. 

I looked through my window all throughout, and I was amazed by what I was experiencing. I was savoring the view and the experience of seeing Palestine. 

Along the way, I noticed many shops, Arabic signs, people doing their daily routines, vehicles, and mosques. 

After a few a hours, we arrived at Ramallah’s bus station. The busyness and vibrance of Ramallah was felt. I saw a mosque. I planned to go there and explore a bit. But I changed my mind. I decided instead, to focus on my journey. I asked people where the van going to Nablus is. I immediately noticed the friendliness of the people there. I felt their kindness, and willingness to help. 

The vehicle going to Nablus is a sherut: a huge passenger van, quite similar to the one’s they have in Thailand or Cagayan de Oro’s Magnum

As we were nearing Nablus, I noticed the terrain became mountainous and they’re full of olive trees. I have never seen so many olive trees in my life. The view was beautiful. I also noticed, along the way from Ramallah to Nablus, it is sparsely populated. I didn’t see a lot of shops, houses, and people: opposite to what I saw along the way from Jerusalem to Ramallah. 

I arrived at Nablus mini-bus station. I went to a nearby shop to compose myself. I’m in a foreign land alone; a land where not many tourists visit. Then, I took a taxi.

In the taxi on my way to my friend’s house, the driver kept on talking; trying his best to have a conversation with me despite his limited English. He said, “Welcome to Palestine. You are safe here. People here are kind: peace loving.” The driver was friendly. We talked, and told me he was glad I was able to visit their place. 

We drove to a mountainous area, and after calling my friend, we were able to find our way their house.

It is a beautiful, big house in an estate in the mountains, with a view of the city of Nablus, Samaria, and reaching even the city of Tel Aviv in Israel. It is wonderful. There is garden with beautiful lawn, olive trees, and a place to relax. The weather was fine that day: beautiful blue sky. The temperature was cool and dry, but the rays of the sun kept us warm: a perfect day to be outdoors in the sun. We relaxed there, talked, laughed, and reminisced our days in Rome when we were there with a bunch of backpackers having the time of our lives. 



I felt like I’m in Italy; in Tuscany that is. With the sunshine, olive trees and all that. I also remembered a scene in Quantum of Solace, when James Bond went to his friend’s house, Rene Mathis, in Southern Tuscany. It was a similar environment and vibe: sunshine, wonderful view, perfect weather, and meeting again of friends.

Again, my imagination of Palestine before going there was wrong. The pictures and videos that I have seen from the news is nothing like what I was seeing and I was experiencing that day: a beautiful, huge villa surrounded by rocky hills and beautiful houses, olive trees, beautiful mosques, paved roads, peaceful, calm, and quiet environment. 

We, then-together with his girlfriend from Taiwan-hit the road using his car. We first visited the village of the Samaritans at Mt. Gerizim. Remember the story from the Bible about the Good Samaritan? 


Philippines, Taiwan, Palestine 
After that, we went to the city proper: exploring, driving around, sight seeing, trying different kinds of Palestinian cuisine, and just having some spicy Arab coffee. 

I was able to try this popular Palestinian snack called knafeh. It is a gooey pastry soaked in syrup with layers of delicious fresh white cheese and nuts. It is served piping hot and you can feel the white cheese melting in your mouth. I don’t have a sweet tooth, but I must confess, I enjoyed that one. 

knafeh
The locals were really happy to see me; to see that a foreigner is visiting their place. That shows that not a lot of foreigners visit Nablus. They smiled at me, laughed, and talked to me.

When my friend was about to pay for our delicious knafeh, the seller refused to take the money, saying he offers that for free because I’m a visitor to their place: what a wonderful soul!

We then explored the old city. Like Jerusalem, Nablus has this old city as well. Walking inside the old city, I felt like I was transported to a different era. Its streets, walls, and infrastructures, the vendors, people busy selling, shouting on top of their lungs to attract customers-all gave an ancient Middle Eastern feel; pretty much what I expected of a market in the Middle East long time ago, as shown in movies. 

My friend, wanted me to try this pita stuffed with minced mutton and spices. He bought the ingredients right there at the market then brought them to the bakery to be prepared and cooked: fresh mutton and fresh green chillies, then they were chopped in front of us, skillfully. It was a joy to watch. He then baked them in a traditional oven. We had the freshest sandwich. 


As we walked along the streets of the old city, we interacted with the locals. They were happy to see me, a foreigner visiting their place. They welcomed me, smiled, and spoke to me. Some even offered their products for me to try for free. 

Unlike the old city of Jerusalem which is full of shops and sellers selling overpriced souvenirs, this old city is very authentic: no fridge magnets, or those touristy keychain crap. You can really experience the authentic, real, interaction and activities of the locals. 



In all my travels, the Palestinian people are one of the warmest and friendliest locals I’ve met. I felt their genuine interest in you and their desire to make you feel welcomed. And when I was there, even when I was alone traveling, transferring at bus stations, never have I felt unsafe. I tried to strike conversations in buses, at the station, at restaurants, and people were happy to talk to me.

a local wih his delicious pickles
That evening we drove around, went to the outskirts of the city. And just enjoyed eating and relaxing. 

Before I left Palestine the next day, I ordered a falafel at one fo the shops near the bus station. I paid 5 Shekels. In Jerusalem, it costs 15 Shekels. Yes, everything is a lot cheaper in Palestine compared to Israel.

Visiting Palestine was an eye-opener for me. I experienced the friendliness of the locals and the beauty of the place. It was a reminder-once again-for me, that there’s more to a place than just what we can see inside the frame of a TV screen or a photograph.




Thank you, Basil, for your hospitality.


NOTES

Bus: Jerusalem to Ramallah: 8 Shekels
Sherut: Ramallah to Nablus: 11.50 Shekels
Taxi: Nablus bus station to friend's house: 25 Shekels
Falafel: 5 Shekels
Shawarma: 13 Shekels
Sherut: Nablus to Jerusalem border: 20 Shekels
Bus: border to Arab bus terminal Jerusalem: 6.5 Shekels

This is part of Tuyok

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