Israel, Jerusalem & Betlehem

. 7 min read . Written by Kuba Vitek
Israel, Jerusalem & Betlehem

Okay, I’m sorry but Haifa is ugly. I could blame it on the weather (horrendous) or the fact we docked in the industrial zone (also horrendous), but the truth of the matter is - I’m hugely relieved as we leave its unsettling panorama full of ‘white elephants’ (horror-like empty shells of various buildings belonging to the previous government, now unused and in various states of disrepair) under the holy Mount Carmel where the Prophet Ellijah performed his miracles about 8000 years ago, behind on our day trip to Tel Aviv.


Our train is chock full of military youth resting their machine guns (!) on their laps whilst scrolling on instagram which nobody finds bizarre & I’m secretly dreading my undercover attempts to snap a picture of this phenomenon might be the last thing I do on this planet. This, of course, will be the defining feeling of this whole two-days visit to Israel. Last night we received letters in our cabins detailing how to conduct ourselves when we leave the ship - how to dress (ugly), what to say (nothing) & how a public display of affection between couples is strongly NOT recommended should you wish to come back on board still breathing.

I’m experiencing my own ‘don’t think about an elephant’ moment right now - you know, how the minute you’re prohibited to do something it becomes the only thing you can think of...It’s been just a few hours I haven’t held David’s hand & I’m already thinking the relationship is over. But a little headtrip is maybe better than being tied to a plastic chair & kicked off the roof of a high-rise building. When I’d relate this fear of mine to the two girls we met in front of the shopping center at Ha’Shalom’s station in Tel Aviv, they’d laugh for a good three minutes.

Tel Aviv, as it stands, is apparently just about the most progressive & liberal place you’d ever visit, and it seemed to me like people our generation work very hard on proving that by talking proudly & loudly about their non-binary, gender-fluid, inter-sex & inter-faith polyamorous relationships. These two girls grabbed our attention for several reasons...Surrounded by shopping bags from luxurious boutiques, they’d totally unashamedly sit on a dirty pavement at the back entrance to the shopping mall & although it’s a middle of Sunday morning & the security guards with their machine guns (of course) check people coming in just two steps away, the two of them are totally unashamedly rolling a massive spliff.

This level of bravery is highly contagious, so we joined in on the conversation & smoking, although our colleagues (who could & would happily report us cause if there’s something people feed on in our ship-isolation, it’s scandals) were finishing their shopping spree & coming to join us in just a few minutes. In those few minutes we’ve learned these two girls have met at the age of 10 to fastly become best friends, later on in puberty even better lovers, only to marry men & start popping children at the age of 18 (remaining good friends all the while), to now - ten years later & much to delight of their husbands, demand to open their marriages so they could become lovers again. This, of course, is further complicated by the fact that one of them fell in love with yet another woman who she’s taking on holiday to Zimbabwe, which she has to lie to her husband about, cause apparently one lesbian lover good, two lesbian lovers bad?

“Your life is like that tv show ‘Transparent’!” I exclaimed, remembering only later those couple episodes in which the whole fucked-up Pfeffermans family indeed embarked on a journey to Israel! Life imitates art, hey?

‌The famed Holy Land we visited the following day on our crew excursion to Betlehem & Jerusalem is (I’m sorry) a one big walk-through gift shop selling religious-themed fridge magnets, which leaves a very little space for dropping into any shred of spirituality these places might still be imbued with.

Crew pays the same money for tours as our passengers, only we don’t get the lunch (just a brown paper bag with an apple, handful of crisps tossed inside & a ham&cheese bun without any ham or cheese) & get the WORST tour guides that no one would dare to send with regular passengers. Our guide lady’s hairdo resembled a giant microphone, which confused me especially every time she grabbed the real microphone and I expected the reality to fold on itself. She conducted our tour literally on the run, kept losing people and then punishing us for losing them, and although we visited all these ever so important religious sights, after wrestling with the crowds of people like on a Beyonce’s concert & trying to dodge relentless vendors selling dirt from the Mount Zion, I left with a feeling like I’ve never been to - but rather just fast-forwarded through a bad History Channel documentary on Holy Land.

Here are few things I learned:

Israel makes quite a lot of noise around the world, but it’s in fact very small - it would fit in France 27 times. Until 1967 and the 6 Days War, Jerusalem was split in two - belonging to both Israel and Jordan.

The famous wall separating the Palestinian & Israeli autonomy has an impressive amount of graffiti art dedicated to both Trump and Banksy.‌

Chritmas trees and decorations are still up everywhere due to Christians, Greek Orthodox and Armenian celebrating Christmas at different points late into January.

In Hebrew, Betlehem translates as ‘House of Breath’, in Arabic it’s  ‘House of Meat’, ew.

The Church of Nativity in Betlehem is the oldest still active church in the world - built in the 4th century on top of a cave that used to be a manger where Jesus was born. You enter through the ‘Door of Humility’ - that’s because they’re so small you have to bend your back & knees to come through.‌

The famous ‘Wailing Wall’, otherwise known as the ‘Western Wall’ or the ‘Ha’Kotel Ha’Ma’Aravi’ -  where you place a piece of paper with your prayers, is just a tourist attraction now and there’s no space left in between the stones to squeeze your prayers in. I liked touching the wall though and wondering how many people of different nationalities left a piece of their heartfelt hopes & dreams right here and if this does something to a place, perhaps raise its energetic vibration in some way.

Church of The Holy Sepulchre is built on what’s referred to in the Bible as Golgotha, where Christ was crucified. I haven’t noticed anything that would indicate this was once a hill and the fact that the church is shielding all the legendary ‘stations’ - starting from the pile of stone slabs amongst which the famous cross was raised, to a stone on which Christ’s body was embalmed just a staircase away, and a few steps after that - the tomb in which his body was laid to rest and where he’s risen from dead to walk Earth once more, somehow seemed totally improbable and underwhelming (not helped by the fact you need to queue for at least three and a half hours to take a peek inside the tomb).

Tel Aviv, like the rest of what we’ve seen of Israel, looks like a post-apocalyptic world that’s only slowly rebuilding civilisation on scraps of the old world. It will remain wedged in my memory like a drizzly grizzly place of stark contrasts. Old town is quite lovely, modern parts are quite ugly, teenagers walk around in full military gear and bizarrely this would be the first place on our voyage where we find both weed AND the limited edition of white Twix, that I’m on a hunt for ever since we left UK.